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Review: Grease Live!

Julianne Hough as Sandy and Aaron Tveit as Danny in Fox's Grease: Live! (image: Fox)

Julianne Hough as Sandy and Aaron Tveit as Danny in Fox’s Grease: Live!
(image: Fox)

Fair warning, my bar was extremely low for Grease: Live!, Fox’s entry into the live-TV-musical-extravaganza genre last night. I’ve seen the 1978 movie a handful of times, usually enjoy singing along, but the show doesn’t hold a particularly special place in my heart. Part of that is my mixed feelings about the ending, of course. Interestingly, in blending the stage show and the movie for this production, I had less of a problem with that particular issue this time around. Mostly because more time was spent on Danny’s transformation, and Sandy finds out about it earlier in the show.

So how did I feel about the live-TV version? I enjoyed it! I had a few quibbles, but I was mostly blown away by the ambition of the production team and the technical feats they were able to pull off. So I’ll break it down by the good and the bad, and we’ll start with the few issues I had so I can finish on a positive note.

The cons: I love Aaron Tveit. I do. Vocally, especially on “Sandy”, he blew John Travolta out of the water. But he lacked Travolta’s charisma and edge, and it really wasn’t believable that this doofus was the leader of the outsider greaser T-Birds.

The lyric changes probably annoyed me the most, and what they chose not to change almost annoyed me more than the changes they did make (Except “dragon wagon”. That’s not even a thing, Fox.). They left in the always-irritating “Did she put up a fight?” line in “Summer Nights”, and several other quite unsubtle innuendos, but “Greased Lightning” was so over the top that they had to water it down substantially? Really? It was jarring, and took me out of the show for that moment. Amusingly, one of my favorite parts of the show also happened during that number, but we’ll discuss that in a bit.

Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo was mostly good, and absolutely stunning during “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” (especially considering she had just learned hours before that her father had lost his battle with cancer), but she just wasn’t edgy enough, most of the time. Stockard Channing’s Rizzo is a hard act to follow, absolutely, but she needed to be just a little rougher in my book.

Speaking of supporting characters, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Frenchy wasn’t bad, necessarily, but the new song that was added for her was mostly a snoozer, so by the time “Beauty School Dropout” came along I was losing interest fast. And I really wanted to love Boyz II Men as the Teen Angel (because MY CHILDHOOD), but their rendition didn’t really work for me either. I think it was too much of a style mismatch.

The last bit I disliked surprised me: the live audience. I think it was definitely better to have the audience reactions at the ends of the musical numbers, but having them on camera constantly pulled focus from the actors, and I don’t think it worked as well as the production team may have hoped.

The pros: First of all, the scope of the production was massive for a live undertaking. Two soundstages and an outdoor set, plus quick-changes during the show, made for an exciting viewing experience. And the camera work was frankly amazing. The first long shot of Jessie J singing the opening song, following her through the backstage areas, glimpsing the Pink Ladies getting ready, was masterful. The other quick-changes that caught my eye were the switchout of the car in “Greased Lightning” (and costume changes!), and Keke Palmer’s transformation for “Freddy, My Love”.

The other technical bit that stood out to me was the drag race at Thunder Road. It was clear what they had done (stationary cars with wind machines and moving lights on the ground to imply movement) but I was also impressed with the stagecraft.

Julianne Hough was mostly an unknown to me outside of Dancing With the Stars, so I knew she could dance, but not if she could sing. I was pleasantly surprised on that front! She’s not amazing, and definitely no Olivia Newton-John, but she has a lovely voice and handled all of Sandy’s major parts well. Acting-wise, she was good enough. At times it felt like watching a copy of a copy (especially with how faithful the costume department was to the movie), but an extremely well-produced copy!

The supporting cast was the other highlight for me. From Eve Plumb (The original Brady Bunch Jan) as the shop teacher, Mrs. Murdock, to Didi Conn (Frenchy in the Grease movie) as Vi, the waitress, and even Barry Pearl (Doody in the Grease movie) as the National Bandstand rep, they were all great. Standouts were definitely Ana Gasteyer as Principal McGee, and Haneefah Wood as Blanche, her assistant. On the supporting student-cast front, the standouts for me were Jordan Fisher as Doody — his version of “Those Magic Changes” was truly magic — and Kether Donohue as Jan.

There were definitely energy dips along the way, but by the last big numbers, complete with the entire cast tearing along in golf-cart-style trams while singing “We Go Together” to get to the big outdoor carnival set, I was giddy with excitement. Everyone was clearly having a ball, the choreography was great, and the “curtain call” at the end was the cherry on top, complete with Didi Conn and Barry Pearl sporting what I assume were their original Pink Lady and T-Bird jackets from the movie.

All in all, a nice way to spend three hours on a Sunday night, and I’m glad I did!

Grease Live is available via FOX NOW.

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