I wasn’t expecting much from “Grease: Live.” NBC, who brought back the format of the live musical a couple years ago with “The Sound of Music,” was coming off a production of “The Wiz” which brought in big numbers and earned critical acclaim. I questioned whether FOX could do something to even come close to that production, especially given that “Grease” is a fun musical without much substance and the dialogue scenes drag like nobody’s business. “Grease: Live” isn’t able to overcome all of the musical’s problems, but it is able to put the production quality of the NBC musicals to shame with pure energy and ambition.
This live production of “Grease” brings in elements from both the original stage production and the better-known movie adaptation. It opens with “Grease is the Word” and replaces “It’s Raining on Prom Night” and “Alone at the Drive-In” with “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “Sandy,” respectively. It also includes “Those Magic Changes” from the musical, which is only an instrumental in the film. The book is reworked by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins (who worked on the latest Broadway revival of “On the Town”).
However, the live broadcast didn’t work through all of the musical’s problems, mainly its tedious book sequences. Especially in the first hour, the dialogue doesn’t have any energy or sense of direction. Scenes happen, but moments like Sandy (Julianne Hough, “Dancing with the Stars”) and Patty’s (Elle McLemore, “Army Wives”) cheerleading competition are slowly paced and way too long. (When you’re looking at 15 minutes between musical numbers, you can’t afford to have anything not work.)
FOX upped the game from NBC’s musicals in the sheer scale of the event. Director Thomas Kail (coming off directing the “little-known” new musical “Hamilton”) was clearly given support to tell this story in a bold, audacious way. In the first number (“Grease is the Word”), the camera follows Jessie J around the show’s backstage areas before opening up into a massive outside set. The scale of the live action is much higher than anything NBC has done. In the dance scenes in the gym, the camera swoops around the room, capturing the gorgeous dance moves in a creative and ingenious manner. The production even makes the smaller numbers big, with usually forgotten songs like “Freddy My Love” (sung by Keke Palmer, “Scream Queens”) and “Those Magic Changes” (performed by Jordan Fisher, “Teen Beach Movie”) getting the full production number treatment.
The musical’s cast is filled with a wide range of names and talent. Aaron Tveit (“Graceland”) and Hough play Danny and Sandy respectively, and neither bring much to their parts. They’re charming and sing well, but I was hoping for a little more depth to their performances. Ana Gasteyer (“Saturday Night Live”) and Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”) have fun in the show’s thankless adult roles. The group that shines the most, though, are the Pink Ladies: Frenchy (Carly Rae Jepsen, who played Cinderella on Broadway), Marty (Palmer) and Jan (Kether Donohue, “You’re the Worst”). Each of them brings a sense of warmth and fun to their performances and have their own standout moments.
The MVP of the broadcast, though, is Vanessa Hudgens (“High School Musical 3: Senior Year”), who gives a career-defining performance as Rizzo. Hudgens’s dad passed away from cancer the night before the show, but she’s still able to bring snark and sharpness to her character. Rizzo is the emotional core of the show, getting the only song where powerful thoughts and feelings are shared in “There are Worse Things I Could Do.” Just thinking about her delivery of “But to cry in front of you / That’s the worst thing I could do,” the closing line of the song, still sends chills down my spine and brings tears to my eyes. Just watch the performance; this is what live TV is all about.
By the end of “Grease: Live,” I’d forgotten about all my nitpicks and bought into the energy of the show. By the time the show was telling me that it was the one that I wanted and that we go together, I had a huge smile on my face, mostly because of what it was able to pull off in a live setting. The boldness of the big musical numbers and Hudgens’s performance more than made up for some of the earlier dragging.
NBC is planning to perform “Hairspray” in December, but they’ll be facing a new high standard. The game has just been changed. It’s your move, NBC.