From the first chord of Grease: Live, which aired last night on FOX, the powers that be behind the production seemed to be shouting: “Don’t worry! We listened to you!” With the inclusion of a live audience, source material that is iconic yet still very digestible for a young and modern audience, and a refreshingly diverse cast, the special seemed to be getting ahead of the negative reviews that plagued its TV musical predecessors, The Sound Of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live!
Unfortunately, despite Grease: Live’s stunning vocal performances and outstanding direction, lackluster performances from its lead players and a bland script left the special unable to truly set itself apart from the ever-growing crowd of modern TV musicals.
With an updated book by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins, Grease: Live told the familiar story of Danny (Aaron Tveit) and Sandy (Julianne Hough) – two teens who have a kinda-sorta star-crossed courtship, before realizing that they really aren’t that different after all. Set in 1959, the show is all poodle skirts, cuffed jeans, and nostalgia, presenting a bubblegum teen romance in a manner that is more fun than thought provoking. After spending the summer together in secret, Danny and Sandy are reunited as students at Rydell High School when Sandy’s family decides to stay in town instead of returning to Utah.
While Danny belongs to a leather jacket-clad group of goofy delinquents called The T-Birds (Carlos PenaVega, Jordan Fisher, David Del Rio, Noah Robbins), Sandy begins to make friends with the Pink Ladies (Vanessa Hudgens, Keke Palmer, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kether Donohue), a delightfully mixed bag of the coolest girls in school. Though Danny’s attempts to appear cool and carefree in front of his friends and the meddling of Pink Lady Rizzo (Hudgens) temporarily get in the way of the couple’s happiness, the lovebirds ultimately put aside their differences and dance their way toward high school graduation.
As a musical, Grease, though beloved, doesn’t provide much by way of a compelling script or interesting storytelling. Instead, the focus is placed on rowdy dance numbers and watching the characters interact. In part, Grease: Live managed to make the most of its source material by capitalizing on the electrifying – pardon the pun – choreography by Zach Woodlee. The bulk of the dancing was reserved for Hough and Tveit – both of whom shone brighter while spinning and kicking than they dO throughout the rest of their time on screen. Unfortunately, the special fails to capture the loose repartee between the T-Birds and Pink Ladies that fans of the 1978 film have come to expect, letting the dialogue-heavy scenes fall flat.
As the quieter scenes fizzle, so does a great deal of Grease: Live’s performances, particularly those of its leads. Hough’s good-girl Sandy is wide-eyed and painfully vanilla, only showing off a spark of something more in her show-stopping number “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” Tveit, as Danny, is equally wooden and completely unbelievable as the silly bad boy that John Travolta brought to life so easily.
The supporting cast proves to be stronger, with Hudgens’ committed performance as Rizzo leading the pack. Hudgens – who put on an incredible show under unspeakable circumstances – puts her own spin on Rizzo’s signature ballad “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” belting beautifully and doing service to the bold vulnerability of the character.
Palmer, as Marty, adds sass and vigor to the mix, giving a performance as sparkling as her sequinned dress in “Freddy, My Love.” Jepsen’s Frenchy is also a bright spot, with her acting picking up the slack that her vocal performance of the new addition “All I Need Is An Angel” – which feels jarringly modern in comparison to the rest of the score – left behind.
Technically speaking, Grease: Live is sweeping and all-consuming – bursting out of the confines of a stage show, while consciously, and continuously, tipping its hat to the medium from which it sprouted: live theatre. The special’s large chorus and dance numbers soar under the direction of Hamilton’s Thomas Kail – whose contribution is easily the standout of the night. During “Hand Jive,” the cameras glide and twist across the soundstage as effortlessly as the dancers themselves, creating a truly immersive experience that is hectic and layered without being distracting.
“You’re The One That I Want” shows off Kail’s talents to an even greater degree with complex staging and camerawork that follows the actors through the carnival set up onstage – and to completely different sets – in a confident, swirling fashion. This finale not only injects Grease: Live with a shot of insatiable energy, but solidifies the special as a cinematically sophisticated work that should raise the bar for all other televised musicals. Even the practical choice to incorporate GoPros – which can so often malfunction or feel gimmicky when used on live television – into the camerawork as the actors drove across the soundstage on golf carts in their performance of “We Go Together,” works to build momentum that easily could have been squandered throughout this transition.