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Old School

An over-the-hill cast gets creaky in Grease

The Brylcreemed, doo-wopping teens of Rydell High, the mythical setting of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's Grease, aren't looking so youthful anymore. At least not as they appear in the traveling production of the show brought to us by Theatre Under the Stars.

Of course, if we're going to talk about age, it'd be easy to pick on Frankie Avalon for reprising his roll as Teen Angel (he was stretching that teen idol thing even in the 1978 film version), especially since the program so shamelessly hawks his geriatric products -- "Zero Pain" for arthritis and "Herbal Prime." But Avalon, arthritic as he might be, is one of the strongest elements of the show. As soon as he appears at the top of Teen Angel's stairs, from which he descends with radiant ease, it's clear that Avalon's nothing if not totally at home under the glare of spotlights, in front of an adoring audience. And his hammy, self-deprecating, faux-Vegas style version of "Beauty School Dropout" is kitschy fun at its best. Faded though he might be, he's still a shining star.

The show's real age problem centers around the rest of the cast, the bunch who play the rascally "teens" of Rydell. They look like teachers dressed up for monitor duty at a Halloween dance. The bad-girl gang of Pink Ladies, headed up by Betty Rizzo (Jacquline Colmer), are an especially scary lot. It's impossible to believe that these dames could be found in the classroom of any high school.

The dames in Grease sure don't look like high 
school students.
Courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars
The dames in Grease sure don't look like high school students.

Details

Through Sunday, November 2; 800 Bagby, 713-558-8887. $25$68
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby

But it's not just the look of the cast that troubles this production. There's also a clunky, aggressive sexuality to Ray De Mattis's direction that robs the show of its breezy, vapid charm -- which was what made this bubblegum tale of angsty puppy love appealing in the first place. The boys spend too much time humping the air, and the girls (who really do move like grown-up women) touch themselves in some very interesting ways while they sing and dance.

The cast members may not pass for teens, but they do have some real vocal power. Hanna-Liina Vosa, whose Sandy Dumbrowski is little more than wallpaper for most of the show, has a megawatt singing voice, and her version of "Hopelessly Devoted to You" is pop music magic. Jamey Isenor's Danny Zuko is slick and funny, especially when he whines and moans over lost love in "Alone at the Drive-in Movie." And while Colmer does only a serviceable job with bad-girl Rizzo's familiar "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" and "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee," Sarah Donadlson and Jason Harper unexpectedly capture the night with "Mooning." Sung with silly big-voiced joy, the number about adolescent tomfoolery is the show's best.

Creaky in the knees, and down in its back, Grease might be the word, but it's also what's missing from this tired production.

 
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