As “Teen Angel” in the Pittsburgh CLO’s production of Grease, Clay Aiken is only on stage for about five minutes. Those five minutes, however, are fab-u-lous.
If there were any doubt that the American Idol alumnus is still popular, one only needed to listen to the thunderous applause and squeals erupting throughout the Benedum Center on opening night as Aiken sang “Beauty School Dropout” in silver platform shoes, a sparkling pink suit, and Beethoven-like wig.
Remember those years between Aiken becoming runner-up on American Idol and appearing on the cover of People magazine declaring “Yes, I’m gay” when people still wondered about his sexuality? Me either. 2019 Clay Aiken is G-A-Y. And he embraces it, like an over-sized Martin Short in drag; his theatrics on point, and his voice booming. This Clay Aiken would have won American Idol.
But there's still plenty for fans of the popular production to enjoy during the rest of the performance as well, whether you're a fan of the 1978 film, starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, or the original stage production — which, on opening night, coincidentally celebrated its 47th anniversary of moving to the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway on June 7, 1972.
The plot follows high school sweethearts Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski, who had a summer fling, only to unexpectedly find themselves at the same school in the fall. Danny is a member of the school's club of bad boys, the Burger Palace Boys, and Sandy soon joins the female cohort, The Pink Ladies.
All of the familiar characters are here: Frenchy, Jan, Sonny, Rizzo, and Kenickie. Film fans will be tempted to sing along to hits like "Summer Nights" and "Hopelessly Devoted to You," with some surprises from the original Broadway production not seen in the film, like "Mooning," performed by Alex Prakken. (Yes, you will see a bare butt.) The stage is often full, with a large cast of 17, an ensemble of 19, and a teen ensemble of 14.
Jackie Burns kills as Rizzo and her emotional rendition of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" gives Aiken a run for his money as the true star of the show. Her scenes with actor Vince Oddo as Kenickie ooze with chemistry the others could only dream of. Forget the Danny and Sandy show; I want to see the Rizzo and Kenickie sequel.
The script largely sticks to the original, even though it could have benefited from some updates, with its scenes about introducing Sandy to smoking cigarettes and the dance contest declaring, "boy and girl couples only!" obviously dated. If Teen Angel can be a flamboyant gay man, how about introducing Sandy to pot instead of cigarettes and having Frenchy grinding with Cha-Cha at the school dance? And the peer pressure turning Sandy into an awkward leather-clad bombshell at the end, with little fanfare building up to it? In this day and age, the plot just feels, well, a little sad.
Still, the production is fun, light-hearted, and enjoyable throughout with a large cast that never takes itself too seriously. The dream sequences, with sparkling silver backdrops, are both kitschy and breathtaking. The dance choreography with such a large group is impressive, especially when the entire cast participates; one of the most fun parts of the entire evening was watching the teen ensemble join the other performers as they danced on stage. Hats off to teen Will Palicki whose contagious smile lit up the entire room, standing out even behind a large professional cast.
Grease. Through Sun., June 16. Pittsburgh CLO at Benedum Center. 237 Seventh St., Downtown. $26-81. pittsburghclo.org