It was systematic. It was hydromatic. It was ultramatic. It was Grease Live! and it was, well, pretty spectacular.
A crowning achievement of directing, pelvis-centric choreography, and the underestimation of a High School Musical starlet, Fox’s Sunday night airing of Grease Live! was easily the most successful live musical event since Carrie Underwood first twirled on a soundstage mountain, setting into motion the recent boom in the genre.
Mostly, though, it was just so much fun.
It began with pop star Jessie J strutting through the maze of soundstages and outdoor sets that made up the sprawling Grease Live! production, introducing us to the Pink Ladies, the T-Birds, the Boyz II Men Teen Angels, and the special’s best and, ultimately, most important characters: the live audience.
For all the joy of NBC’s recent mounting of The Wiz, watching each musical number was like laboriously blowing up a giant balloon and right when you’re ready to admire it, it pops.
Peppering the Grease Live! sets with a live audience was brilliant. They acted as our stand-ins, applauding when we would’ve applauded, hollering when we wanted to holler, and experiencing the same sexual reawakening we did when Aaron Tveit’s biceps made a cameo in “You’re the One That I Want.”
More, they injected Sunday night’s telecast with the kind of energy that gave us chills. You might say they’re multiplying. It’s electrifying.
Hamilton director Thomas Kail not only mounted a feat of technical direction here—this was such a huge undertaking and it cannot be undersold what a masterful task Kail pulled off—but he cannily spotlighted the fact that this was a performance, often pulling back the curtain to reveal the cameras and sets and actors running to their next quick change.
It reminded you that this was a live performance, but also captured the magic of live theatre. Live theatre is a careful balance of polish and unpredictability. Garbage L.A. weather—El Nino brought with him some gale-forced winds and torrential downpours—meant some umbrellas were in order for some of the outdoor scenes, and only added to the success of the production, reminding us that there are stakes involved in live theatre. Those backstage shots of the cast being shuttled between sets reminded us that live theatre is work.
Combined, that unpredictability, stakes, and work made for a thrilling viewing experience.
This production of Grease married the film that we’ve all basically absorbed into our very being and the theatrical production that differs greatly from the 1978 movie, as anyone who has been in a high school mounting of it will happily spend 25 minutes telling you about. (As a former Kenickie myself, I am quick to remind all that, in the play, it is Kenickie who sings “Greased Lightning,” not Danny. I assure you that I imbued my performance with all the raw sexuality of a 115-pound 16-year-old.)
It will forever be jarring, thanks to the movie, for Sandy to skip on stage and speak without Olivia Newton-John’s Australian accent. Here, we have Sandy Young, who transfers to Rydell High from Utah. Those cardigan sweaters and sensible flats, apparently, are not a sign of a girl who is confidently conservative because of her strong moral character. She’s just Mormon.
Because of how famous Grease and its songs are—and how iconic that image of Newton-John sewn into her sexy leather pants is—it’s easy to forget that Sandy is the blandest, most vanilla leading lady in perhaps all of musical theatre history. So Julianne Hough could not have been more perfectly cast.
That her acting boasted all the pizzazz of wheat toast is less the fault of Hough than the writing of the character. What the Dancing With the Stars manifestation of the term “wholesome American girl” did bring, though, was a strong stage presence and a surprisingly hearty singing voice. Her “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was one of the musical’s highlights.
Broadway veteran Aaron Tveit lacked the danger and the swagger that Danny Zuko needs, a reminder of how singular John Travolta’s performance really was. But sweet Jesus is this man attractive.
The revelation, though, is the former Disney star who played Betty Rizzo, the high school senior Stockard Channing famously played at age 34. Like I’ve said for years, Vanessa Hudgens is the next Stockard Channing.
While that’s a joke, Hudgens’s talents and professionalism are not.
She crafted a character with the perfect mix of bruised pride and vulnerable maturity, and performed the showstopper “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” with a kind of emotional dignity that deserves even more applause considering what was going on behind the scenes as she was performing: Hudgens’s father passed away the night before Grease went live. She dedicated her performance to him. That she managed such a star turn in spite of that is astonishing, and heartbreaking.
As for the rest of the cast? The T-Birds were as bland and anonymous as they always are, but the Pink Ladies were a total hoot. You’re the Worst’s Kether Donohue stole every scene she was in—as anyone who has watched her on the FXX series knew she would—and Carly Rae Jepsen could not have been more adorable as Frenchy.
Never has the “there are no small parts…” adage been more applicable than it was here, with the supporting cast making comedic mountains out of character-role mole hills. Elle McLemore’s Patty Simcox was the dialed-to-11 deranged delight you crave, while Ana Gasteyer as the high-strung principal and Haneefah Wood’s hungover Blanche were a comedy dream team.
Eve Plumb, aka Jan Brady, popped up as the shop teacher—“Marcia, Marcia… Sandy?”—and original Frenchy Didi Conn played the waitress mentor to Carly Rae’s Frenchy, which was sweet enough to make any Grease fan just about cry.
That’s not to say this production was flawless. A new song written for Jepsen to sing was pretty awful. Mario Lopez’s Vince Fontaine was borderline appalling.
Alterations made to lyrics for propriety’s sake were pretty tone-deaf and uneven. In “Greased Lightning,” chicks will now “scream” instead of “cream,” but Kenickie still wants to know if Sandy “put up a fight” during her summer nights with Danny. Orgasming? Bad. Sexual assault? Sure! Of course, Grease was never the best when it comes to lessons about relationships. It’s a musical that boils down to “betray your morals and change who you are in order to impress a hot guy.”
And while Keke Palmer’s performance as Marty had all the subtlety of Frenchy’s neon pink hair, her “Freddy My Love” performance was emblematic of the directing ingenuity Kail brought to this production, turning a throwaway song from the play into the night’s first big showstopper. For musical theatre nerds, nothing was more rousing than seeing that number and “Those Magic Changes”—another stage-only song—reinvented by Kail to such great effect.
Nothing compared, though, to the tour de force of “Greased Lightning,” perhaps the most magnetic group number that this new age of live musical events has produced. With cleverly conceived choreography by Glee’s Zach Woodlee, who apparently never met a dance break that couldn’t be elevated by a few more pelvic thrusts, it was a shining moment for Tveit, Kail’s masterful and kinetic directing, the show’s talented ensemble, lovers of musical theatre, men gyrating in tight pants, and latent homoeroticism everywhere.
When NBC finally resuscitated the flatlining live musical revival after two lifeless critical flops with the jubilant The Wiz, we realized what promise the genre had. Kail’s boundless ambition and meticulous execution was the premium gasoline that made not just “Greased Lightning,” but the entire genre, race off toward the future.
Even if this hadn’t been live, what Kail managed to accomplish in his direction would have deserved a standing ovation. Because Grease Live! is the first of these live events to give us a curtain call we’ve craved, we feel even more compelled to leap to our feet for him.
He’s the kind of talent we’d ditch our poodle skirt for leather leggings, curl our hair, and take up a smoking habit for. Tell me about, it stud.