My inner stage manager—always holding her breath in anticipation of the next glitch—breathed a sigh of relief when the cast of Fox’s Grease: Live! triumphantly began their closing number. The nearly-three hour live taping of the musical was a technically astounding, nearly error-free spectacle, pulled off by the cast and production team with dazzling ambition and precision (not to mention $16 million). There were cameras everywhere: strapped to men flying to capture a dance-off from above, positioned behind Danny’s steering wheel during Thunder Road, and in the hands of countless crew members running, swerving, and dancing with the cast to snag every conceivable shot. The actors used golf carts to navigate the twenty acre, two-lot, fourteen-stage set. Six hundred and fifty live audience members sat on bleachers in many of the performance spaces to watch the antics unfold—and when the action was acres away, I suspect they killed time fidgeting with their Rydell-red scarves and talking about Aaron Tveit’s short-shorts.
Director Thomas Kail, of Hamilton fame, worked the ambiguous genre of TV musical to his advantage. He embraced the theatricality of Broadway (the lighting, the costumes, the assumed suspension of reality) and synthesized it with the visual trickery and location diversity possible on television. Grease: Live! doesn’t quite feel like a Broadway playhouse, but it’s not quite cinematic either. It doesn’t fit in, but it doesn’t seem to care. It’s cool.
The performances ranged from passable to good (with the exception of Joe Jonas, who couldn’t seem to remember his lyrics or invest energy into pretending to be anyone other than Joe Jonas) and the dancing was categorically great. Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo struck a perfect balance between vulnerable and bad-ass in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” and proved equally mesmerizing in less pivotal moments, like playing solitaire in a crowded diner while sarcastically sucking on a lollipop and ignoring all her friends. As a High School Musical-era kid (and we all know HSM is just the 2000s remake of Grease), it’s surprisingly fun to watch Hudgens back in high school as Sharpay instead of Gabriella. Hudgens, whose emotional performance was heightened by her father’s death mere hours before the broadcast, mastered Rizzo’s smirk and couldn’t-give-fewer-shits attitude with a new softness. Of all the characters, Rizzo alone has a trackable, relatable evolution. You want Rizzo to be okay.
Marty (Keke Palmer) slayed her Dreamgirls-esque rendition of “Freddy My Love,” in which she walked straight from her bedroom onto a catwalk and changed her costume without missing a beat. Frenchy (Carly Rae Jepsen) was fine, but Fox’s inclusion of the new original song “All I Need is an Angel” (almost certainly included to give Jepsen a solo) was bizarre. Although Fox hyped Grease: Live! in the months preceding Sunday night’s event as a modern, “refreshed [and] alive” take on a beloved story, the new material did nothing to shift the entrenched gender politics of Grease or make Jepsen’s narrative in any way more three-dimensional. Instead, Jepsen was a damsel in distress eagerly awaiting an angel to point her in the right direction. The angels arrived in Boyz II Men’s Beauty School Dropout, but I was too distracted by the previous number to have much patience for angels in hair curlers.
Though they both made it through the show, which is a notable feat, Sandy (Julianne Hough) and Danny (Aaron Tveit) were the evening’s least enticing performances. Hough was a phenomenal dancer and could carry her weight vocally, but was hurt by bland dialogue and a complete lack of chemistry with Tveit. Now, let’s be clear: it’s nearly impossible to rival John Travolta’s sex appeal in Grease. Perhaps I’m biased because, like so many theater kids before me, watching Travolta sing “Greased Lighting” was the first time I got the whole sex appeal thing, but Tveit didn’t even come close. In fact, though he’s cute and sweet and sings like an angel, everything about him down to his expertly executed dance moves was too clean cut. Though perhaps more the fault of the source material than the production (do they ever have a conversation??), Danny and Sandy’s relationship makes no sense. Tveit’s appeal is evident during his Broadway moments (“Greased Lightning,” the Thunder Road race), but, for the most part, his Danny just didn’t do it for me.
When you join already record-setting audiences and find yourself streaming Grease: Live! for free on Fox’s website, it’s crucial that you supplement your dorky grin with what should be required reading—Lin Manuel Miranda’s live-tweet stream from the event, featuring West Wing memes and other great joys. Miranda’s tweet “THIS LOOKS LIKE A F*CKING MOVIE” sums up the fact that Sunday’s show was undoubtedly more about the look of the numbers and the sheer scale of the event than about the story. But Grease: Live! succeeds in making you want to use excitement-induced capslock and go out with your friends and buy matching outfits. And nothing is cooler than matching outfits, okay?
Photo courtesy of here.