Fox’s ‘Grease Live’ at once overpowers NBC’s live theatrical events thanks to star-powered production values
Every. Single. Person. In America. Is familiar with Grease. Whether they’ve watched it endlessly at home or they’ve done countless community theater productions in their home town, everyone knows the story of Danny and Sandy and the T-Birds and The Pink Ladies. When Fox announced that they were throwing their hand in the ring for Grease Live, I thought it was going to be as musty as an ancient high school drama club red curtain. Sunday’s night’s presentation, however, was led by an energetic cast and overflowing with production value. The most prominent sound of the evening was that of every NBC executive’s butthole tightening.
The Sound of Music was handsome but overshadowed by a miscast Carrie Underwood. Last December’s The Wiz was a raucous achievement that exploded with color and talent. Peter Pan was…well, let’s not talk about that, shall we? What did Grease Live do better than all of these NBC mounted productions? It changed the way we saw a televised musical. Normally, there are so many commercial breaks because they have to change the set and allow time for some costume changes. Since Grease Live utilized multiple stages, it allowed the camera to literally swing and swerve around the action as quickly as two horny teenagers center stage at a sock hop.
Danny and Sandy have always been the focus of aspiring actors, but while they have the most stage time, they sure as hell are boring characters. Aaron Tveit’s Danny fares much better than Julianne Hough’s deer-in-headlights Sandy Young (her name is Sandy Dumbrowski, dammit!). He’s dreamy and should have been in gym shorts the entire production. There it’s been said. The T-Birds were incredibly bland this time around, but that’s mainly because they were left with nothing to do. Roger’s Mooning was cut, and Kenickie even feels like an afterthought in the rollicking Greased Lightnin’. This production felt like it was all about The Pink Ladies, and that’s a-ok, because they have the better material anyway.
Keke Palmer has made a real impression this year with both Scream Queens (the show is wretched, but she does all right with the material she’s given) and now her role as Marty. The staging of Freddy My Love as a USO show is one of the production’s highlights, and Palmer really nails it. Even though Carly Rae Jepson was given a truly bogus new song (sorry, Jessie J) as Frenchy, she’s both adorable and capable of doing more acting. The one person who truly excelled was Vanessa Hudgens as the iconic Rizzo. I don’t know where the hate for Hudgens comes from, but it exists for some inexplicable reason. She killed it last night with every winking barb and knowing glint in her eyes. Of anyone on that stage, she was the one who knew exactly what she was doing the entire time. The only T-Bird was allowed time to shine was Jordan Fisher as Doody. He looks like Bruno Mars’ younger brother, and his rendition of Those Magic Changes was cleverly staged as Danny’s determination to win Sandy over.
Not all was sunny at Rydell. The sound was obviously temperamental, and that’s probably because they were jumping back and forth from location to location. They followed a little too close to the movie, to be honest. Grease is a beloved musical classic, yes, but does every detail have to look exactly like the original film? Couldn’t they have showcased how something doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of the original? Sandy’s dress at the dance looked exactly like Olivia Newton-John’s. The camera angle out of Jan’s bedroom window to the car of boys below was exactly the same. Even the employees of the diner watching the dance off felt so fabricated that it should have been titled: Grease: The Movie: Live.
While not without its speedbumps, it appears that Grease Live has revitalized the conversations yet again on television musicals. The ratings topped everything except for NBC’s The Sound of Music, but people were a lot more excited about it. It’s probably because Grease is as frothy as a milkshake and as fun as doing the Hand Jive. It had problems, sure, but that’s live theater for you. Just watch that epic finale. Fox is not messing around.