A heavenly role for an Idol

The Baltimore Sun

You might say that Taylor Hicks tailor-made the role of Teen Angel in Grease to his precise specifications.

The Angel appears in the 1950s-era musical just once, to sing "Beauty School Dropout." And Hicks' version differs in key ways from the renditions of such pop legends as Chubby Checkers, Frankie Avalon and Davy Jones, all of whom previously performed the role.

As befitting a man who won the fifth season of American Idol with more than 63 million votes, Hicks brings his own brand of bling to his solo. He croons his advice to a dazzled teenage girl who reacts as though she were a bonafide member of Hicks' Soul Patrol.

The 32-year-old Silver Fox recently took a few minutes to chat by phone about his first foray into musical theater, his enthusiasm for the Baltimore Ravens, and his new album, which is being released next month.

You've been given an unusual amount of latitude to make artistic decisions for this production of Grease. Most performers are told, "Do it my way." They aren't encouraged to reorchestrate their solo or to design their own costumes.

In a production like Grease, you can't change the look of Danny Zuko. But a teen angel from rock 'n' roll heaven could look like anybody.

But, yeah, I wrote some R&B; horn lines for my solo, "Beauty School Dropout," and I helped design the costume to fit more of my style. It's a midnight-blue suit studded with rhinestones, kind of like Elvis Presley meets Gram Parsons.

And as an encore at the curtain call, I sing a single from my new album, "What's Right Is Right," so my fans get to experience multiple facets of what I can do.

How is singing in a musical comedy different from performing a concert?

Well, a theater audience is definitely different from a rock audience. They're more into the story line. And, in a theater, the fans don't rush the stage. They do whoop and holler sometimes, though, which is a blast.

You make your entrance in Grease from inside a giant ice-cream cone. What are you thinking as you're dangling in the dark 20 feet above the stage floor?

It's an interesting thing. Each new market that I go into, I make it a point not to look out at the venue or at the crowd before I go on stage. I don't know what a house looks like or the audience looks like until the cone opens. It's exhilarating, and it help keeps each performance fresh.

But this isn't your first visit to Baltimore.

No, and I'm looking forward to coming back. I'm a big Baltimore Ravens fan and have been for at least eight years. There aren't any pro football teams in Alabama, where I'm from, so if you live there, it's almost like you've got a free pick.

Football is big in Alabama, and defense is big in Alabama, and there's not a better defensive team anywhere than the Ravens. My favorite player would have to be Ed Reed. He doesn't just play football. He's also an entertainer.

You're only playing Teen Angel for the first week the show is in Baltimore. After that, your understudies will perform.

That's right. After [Sunday], I will be off promoting my new album, The Distance, which will be released March 10.

But when I'm in town, I'm also going to be performing one concert at Rams Head in Annapolis [at 11 p.m. Saturday.] It's sold out, and I'm excited about it.

What I'm trying to do in every city is a shadow tour with my band, and gear up for the release of my new record. I do Grease Saturday afternoon and Saturday night, and then a late concert. That's three shows in one day. It wipes me out, but it gives more of my fans an opportunity to see me.

Here's the obligatory question about American Idol. What do you think of the new judge?

I worked with Kara DioGuardi on my last record, Heaven Knows. She's very driven, very creative, with a good knack for words. We came up with a lot of lyrics really quickly. With her songwriting prowess, she'll be able to understand how the singers are putting their own interpretation on the songs. I think she's going to be a great addition to American Idol.

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