Grease is the word, and the word the morning after is Wow. Fox’s ambitious Grease: Live production was electrifying! The network’s three-hour live television adaptation blew the previous live TV musicals on a certain other network right out of the water.
With nostalgia on their side and one of the most famous and sing-able soundtracks ever, Grease did have an advantage from the start.
At the helm of it all was Thomas Kail, the director of the Broadway sensation Hamilton, who did a masterful job of pulling off a massive, complicated live production full of intricacies and many moving parts.
As leading lady Julianne Hough recently told Bio during an interview, “I feel like we’re shooting a musical movie, in real time, with sitcom audience members… It’s like the craziest hybrid I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing.”
Which number was Hough most worried about performing? “The hardest is probably ‘Hopelessly Devoted,’” she told Bio, “because I’m running to get on a golf cart, right after the big dance, after I’ve busted my butt, to travel over to Sandy’s house in like a minute and a half, and have to get prepared to belt out ‘Hopelessly Devoted.’”
And she did it seamlessly Sunday night.
Just to give you an idea of the scope of this thing: There were three sound stages on the Warner Bros. lot (including an outdoor set for the show-stopping finale at the carnival); an ensemble cast of over 100, performing in front of a live audience of 650 screaming Grease fans; and 392 quick changes, with the fastest quick change honor going to Frenchy, Rizzo and Jan at 11 seconds. Another tricky feat was cleverly pulling off the near-impossible drag race scene at Thunder Road.
The production value was phenomenal, from the complicated choreography to the superior camera work to the lavish sets and costume designs with attention paid to even the smallest details.
In fact, it was all so slick and so polished that it looked like a film rather than theater, and the thrill of unpredictability was practically missing. But just when we thought for a teensy moment that this Grease might not be so Live, the show fell silent and lost nearly 30 seconds of audio during the big “Born to Hand Jive” number, reminding us that oops, anything can happen on live TV. Other than that, the technical malfunctions were relatively minor, such as the cheering live audience drowning out the cast’s vocals at certain points.
The high-energy cast, who prepared with eight weeks of rehearsals, was clearly having fun as they breathlessly belted out the famous tunes and jetted between the sprawling sets on golf carts to hit their next marks.
Any time a new cast steps into roles made famous by another, it’s a real challenge. Of course, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John will always be the ones that we want as Danny and Sandy, but the new kids did more than alright.
Broadway veteran Aaron Tveit and Dancing with the Stars’ Julianne Hough took on the lead roles as Rydell High’s star-crossed good-girl, bad-boy couple Danny and Sandy, and between his hunkiness and her adorableness, the casting was spot-on.
Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), suffering the tragic loss of her father who died the day before, played tough-as-nails Rizzo and gets major props for powering through the show “in his honor.”
As for the rest of the Pink Ladies, singer Carly Rae Jepsen played beauty school dropout Frenchy; Keke Palmer (Scream Queens) was sassy Marty Maraschino; Carlos PenaVega (Big Time Rush) played Kenickie; and Kether Donahue (FX’s You’re the Worst) was Jan; while David Del Rio, Jordan Fisher and Andrew Call rounded out the T-Birds.
Overall, the acting didn’t quite dazzle, but it didn’t really matter since we all know Grease is all about the songs—and that’s where there wasn’t a weak link in the bunch. Not only did the cast sustain their energy throughout the three-hour production, but each performance seemed to get stronger as the show went on.
This modern version did switch up a few things from the original, starting with a lot more diversity in the cast -- Keke Palmer stepping in as Marty, Haneefah Wood was the flighty Blanche, Principal McGee (Ana Gasteyer’s) assistant; and Wendall Pierce played Coach Calhoun, while Boyz II Men performed “Beauty School Dropout.”
In this more PC version, some of the famous lines were replaced too, like the car was a now “dragon wagon” (whatever that is) and the “chicks’ll scream” were added instead of the racier lyrics. However, the controversial line “Did she put up a fight?” from “Summer Nights” stayed in, along with Rizzo’s pregnancy scare, since it’s pretty pivotal to the story line. Also, a line about Jan being “fat” was switched to Jan being “weird” and “Naughty Sandy” skipped the cigarette at the end.
Among the stand-out performances: Hough’s vocals really shined in “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” and her dancing skills were put to good use during “Born to Hand Jive.” Similarly, Hudgens totally nailed her solo “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Keke Palmer got a moment to shine in “Freddy My Love,” a song that didn’t appear in the movie version, along with “Those Magic Changes,” performed solidly here by Jordan Fisher. Frenchy also got a new solo in this version. And we can’t forget Aaron Tveit, who can really belt it out (and whose pelvic-thrusting gets an honorable mention too).
Of course, the show-stopping finale, culminating with Sandy’s big transformation and black satin pants reveal (here, pegged as more of her own self-discovery and coming out of her Utah-raised shell, rather than the old changing-for-a-boy routine), and the raucous numbers “You’re the One That I Want” and “We Go Together” was a ton of fun, starting with the entire cast jumping into the golf carts and cruising through the back lot and cheering crowds to the outdoor set for the carnival, featuring a real ferris wheel.
Last but not least were the fun cameos, including Eve Plumb (Jan from The Brady Bunch!) as the T-Birds shop teacher and Joe Jonas as Johnny Casino, the National Bandstand band leader. But best of all was Grease’s original Frenchy, Didi Conn, appearing as diner waitress Vi, who had a few fun scenes with Jepsen’s Frenchy (Frenchy talking to Frenchy was rather meta).
All in all, the night was a success. Go Grease Lightning!