Alice B.'S Stylish `Grease' Is A Switch

"Grease." Book, lyrics and music by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. At Pioneer Square Theatre, 512 2nd Ave. Wednesday-Sunday through May 10. $12-16. 322-5423. --------------------------------------------------------------- So what's a gay company like the Alice B. Theatre doing with a nice, straight '50s-nostalgia musical like "Grease"?

Gender-bending it to high heaven, that's what. Just imagine an episode of television's "Happy Days" set in a transvestite nightclub instead of a malt shop, and you might get an inkling of this wickedly entertaining spoof-of-a-parody at the Pioneer Square Theatre.

"Grease," you may recall from the popular Broadway show and subsequent Hollywood film, has camp underpinnings to begin with.

Riding on some particularly inane cliches of teen pop culture in the '50s, the Jim Jacobs-Warren Casey musical follows the trashy Pink Ladies and "greaser" Burger Palace Boys of mythical Rydell High School from pajama party to rumble to school gym hop.

With a collective intelligence in the two-digits, this crowd doesn't spend much time pondering existentialism or cramming for their SAT exams. They'd rather make out and bicker, when they're not doo-wapping an ode to a muscle car ("Greased Lightnin' "), crooning a teen angel ballad ("Beauty School Dropout") or line dancing to a Buddy Holly-style rave-up ("Do the Hand Jive.")

This is synthetic nostalgia for the way things never were. And, with the transformation of the sweet, virginal Sandy (Kathleen Clarke) into a bimbo, it also strikes a blow for conformity.

What makes this stuff at all bearable the umpteenth time around are director Jillian Armenante's sly direction and her aggressive switch-casting.

Half the Burger Palace Boys are gals, you see, including the heartthrob, Danny (Frannie Pope, pompadoured to resemble John Travolta). Conversely, several Pink Ladies have visible chest hair and lantern jaws to go with their high heels and poufy skirts.

Played for double campiness, the conventional butch-femme sexuality of the original show gets ripped wide open and turned inside-out. Such simple lines as "He sounds like a drag" and "Why don't you come over to my house tonight? It'll be just us girls" take on new meanings. Actually, all the dialogue and lyrics are awash in innuendo. And by no accident all the couplings are (in one way or another) same-sex affairs.

Raunchiness aside (and be forewarned that raunch abounds), the production profits from Armenante's very smart staging, witty choreography by Mayme Paul-Thompson (be prepared for a stage version of The Wave), and an ingenious set by Gary Smoot akin to a pop-out greeting card.

But what really holds through the more idiotic stretches are the performers, their style and oomph. They all contribute, but stand outs include Kris Anderson, Burton Curtis, Joshua List and Frank Jewett (who handle drag assignments very adroitly), along with Melany Lynne Bell's hard-edged Rizzo and Joel Summerlin's endearing Doody.

The trio making the music also warrants praise - especially Chris Jeffries, who in dowdy dress and wig doubles as a sour-puss Miss Grundy of a teacher and a Jerry Lee Lewis at the keyboard.