Thursday, July 26, 2012 | 7:06 p.m.
Adrian Zmed is seated in a randomly selected foldout chair at the “Peepshow” theater in Planet Hollywood. This is where “Surf the Musical” is showcased nightly except Thursday, when the beach is dark.
As stagehands amble across the vast stage amassing the show's set, a car is rolled into the middle of the scenery. It is "Surf's" most significant set piece, an aqua-colored 1957 Ford Thunderbird convertible. The car has been beautifully restored and gleams sharply under the theater’s bright stage lights.
But as anyone who has restored vintage cars knows, that detailed work was not finished overnight. There is a lot of wrenching, buffing and painting required to make an old car look new again.
The restoration metaphor is evident as the producers of “Surf” bring to life a period of ebullient innocence fueled by the catchy tunes of the Beach Boys. The show has been up and running for nearly a month, opening for previews June 29 and celebrating its formal premiere July 17. But mechanics are still busy tinkering with the show, sealing oil leaks and quieting any mysterious knocks and rattles that prevent the vehicle from humming in showroom condition.
“We’re still working with it,” Zmed says a couple of hours before Wednesday's show, in which he portrays wizened surf shop overlord Nick. “We want to add a new song, and that alone takes a lot of work and planning.”
Zmed, who has sought a long-term engagement in Las Vegas for at least a decade, says he is hanging 10 for as long as it takes to make the show a permanent fixture on the Strip. At 58 and physically fit enough to perform the splits onstage during each “Surf” performance, Zmed says it is important to be patient with a work as elaborate as the new musical.
“There are so many moving parts, and we’re doing something that someone hasn’t tried before,” he says. “We’re doing a Broadway show that has never been on Broadway from Las Vegas. This is a new adventure for everyone.”
Patience might be Zmed’s greatest trait. He speaks convincingly of understanding the need for growth, collectively and individually, as a show takes shape.
“We have the new generation, Generation Z or whatever they call themselves, who get a job in a new show and are immediately going off to auditions,” he says. “I’m not speaking of this show specifically, but, in general, that is the attitude. They’re off for the next big thing, and meanwhile they already have a great opportunity in front of them. But they go out and audition for something less than what they have now, and I don’t understand that.”
Zmed knows he risks sounding like Nick from the show, imparting sage advice based on a lifetime of experience. He has been onstage since he was a teenager, developing his stage chops as Danny Zuko in the original version of “Grease,” and has played that role more often than any other actor -- including the 1995 revival of the musical when he was age 40.
“My life has been ‘Grease,’ ” he says. “If you look at the character I’m playing now, he’s like Danny Zuko has retired and gone to the beach.”
Zmed remembers the patience required during the audition process for “Grease 2,” in which he read for the role of Johnny Nogerelli nine times.
“They wanted a star name, a rock-star type, and I was really nobody,” he remembers, laughing. “I would come in after one of the Brothers Gibb auditioned, or K.C. of K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and have to win back the role. They knew, at least, that I could handle the scenes with the T-Birds.”
Despite some lethal reviews, Zmed says he fondly remembers “Grease 2” as being true to the plot and tenor of the original musical (and, oddly enough, there is a subculture of “Grease 2” devotees in Las Vegas -- you just need to know where to find them).
“The film ‘Grease’ was mostly a vehicle for Olivia (Newton-John) and John (Travolta), and it worked for that reason,” he says. “But ‘Grease 2’ was a lot closer to the Broadway show.”
Asked for some quickie memories of his other famous projects -- “Bachelor Party” and the TV series “Dance Fever” and “T.J. Hooker” -- Zmed is fast with anecdotage.
“In ‘Bachelor Party,’ we were all so new to the filmmaking process, and what you saw onscreen was pretty much how we were living in those days,” Zmed says of the 1984 comedy, which co-starred Tom Hanks. “We were working 13-hour days and ad libbing a lot of the script. I had met Tom when I was a guest star on ‘Bosom Buddies,’ and I remember playing a lot of heavy-metal music and Tom banging on my door trying to get me to stop.”
“Dance Fever” was one of the early syndicated contest shows with Zmed taking over as host for Denny Terrio.
“Merv Griffin was far ahead of his time with that show,” Zmed says, noting the judging panel and multiple contestants in each episode. “We had everything but audience participation. It was a lot of fun, but I go back and look at myself on ‘Dance Fever’ and I’m going, ‘What was I thinking with that hair? What were we doing?’
“The other day I showed some of the (“Surf”) cast some of the dance moves I used on ‘Dance Fever,’ and they were in hysterics.”
Zmed played Officer Vince Romano for four seasons on “T.J. Hooker” opposite William Shatner (who parodied the show as host of “Saturday Night Live” by reciting all of his lines while clinging to the hood of a speeding patrol car). In what would become an important foretelling, Zmed met the Beach Boys on the set of the crime-drama.
“They were guest stars on the show in 1982, I think, and I met all of them then,” Zmed says, recalling an episode where the band played a concert near the end of the show. “I remember talking to Brian Wilson. He would be very mellow, then all of a sudden would get very excited and in your face (shouting), ‘What’s going on?!’ ”
The surviving original members of the band are touring now, celebrating their 50th anniversary, as their music is being celebrated in a musical on the Strip.
“It’s funny how it all works out, you know?” Zmed says. “There is something in this show for everyone, kids all the way through adults. We’re just hitting on a vibe of a time that was a lot of fun and very carefree.”
And if you wait for it, it’ll come to you. That’s what Zmed, and “Surf,” is counting on.