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FOX Raises The Bar With ‘Grease: Live!’

Jess Guida ’19/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough in Grease: Live. Photo Credit: FOX
Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough in Grease: Live. Photo Credit: FOX

Grease is definitely the word on FOX. The highly anticipated live TV Musical event, Grease: Live premiered this past Sunday, and people were definitely not disappointed with the end result.

While the stage version of the musical was originally released 1971, the movie adaptation of Grease, featuring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, came about in 1978 and turned Grease into one of the most successful and beloved movie musicals of all time. So, FOX had some big shoes to fill, and they knew that no matter what, they would be compared to the classic movie.

Grease: Live featured its own star-studded cast led by Julianne Hough as Sandy and Aaron Tveit as Danny. While it was inevitable that Hough and Tveit would be compared to their predecessors, the two actors certainly held their own. Hough, who is probably best known for being a professional dancer, definitely brought a sense of innocence to the role, but she failed at some points to distinguish that innocence from blandness. However, she seemed most authentic and strong towards the end after her “Bad Sandy” transformation. During the last two musical numbers, she really came into her own through that persona. Additionally, Hough proved that she was more than just her dancing abilities, showing audiences her beautiful singing ability in “Summer Nights” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Tveit, who arguably had the most stage experience going into this show, played a respectable Danny Zuko. His portrayal lacked a bit of what is can only be referred to as a Travolta-like swagger; it was his singing, though, that really made him stand out. His powerful but smooth voice in “Sandy” displayed exactly why Tveit was the right choice.

Julianne Hough in Grease: Live. Photo Credit: Kevin Estrada/FOX
Julianne Hough in Grease: Live. Photo Credit: Kevin Estrada/FOX

Keke Palmer, who played Marty, also distinguished herself as a strong performer. Palmer, who is mostly known for her television acting, put on one of the most memorable number of the night. “Freddy My Love” brought the glitz and glam, and Palmer hit the ball out of the park. Her sultry voice also came as a pleasant surprise. While her overall performance was good, there were times that Palmer’s acting seemed a bit overdone or forced, but not to the point that it ruined her portrayal.

One of the other pink ladies, Frenchie, was played by singer Carly Rae Jepsen. Unfortunately, Jepsen did not present the same fire that Palmer did. Her performance lacked the quirkiness and charm that Frenchie’s character demands. For this broadcast, FOX also added an original song by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkley entitled “All I Need Is An Angel.” The song itself did not fit in with the rest of the musical. It was very contemporary and seemed out of place. It also was unnecessary in its placement. The song was placed between when Frenchie was left alone in the diner and the “Beauty School Dropout” number. Placing the two numbers back to back overloaded the scene.

Of course, who could forget about the T-Birds? Two that stood out were Kenickie, played by Carlos PenaVega of Big Time Rush fame, and Doody, played by Jordan Fisher from Teen Beach Movie. Both PenaVega and Fisher proved that they were more than just teen sensations. Fisher, particularly, shined through in both his acting and singing abilities. “Those Magic Changes” was definitely a highlight of the night, especially the end where Fisher and Tveit combined their talents and turned the end into a mini-duet. Saying it was pleasant to listen to would be an understatement.

Vanessa Hudgens in Grease: Live. Photo Credit: Kevin Estrada/FOX
Vanessa Hudgens in Grease: Live. Photo Credit: Kevin Estrada/FOX

The real MVP of Grease: Live was Vanessa Hudgens, who played Rizzo. Hudgens had the perfect balance of acting and singing ability, and she completely nailed the character’s signature sass. Through “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” Hudgens proved that she could be playful and fun, and she showed her sexy side in “Born To Hand Jive” while showing her vulnerability in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” What made Hudgens’ performance extra special was the fact that her father passed away from stage 4 cancer the morning before the live show. She powered through, though, and delivered one of the best performances of the night. Vanessa Hudgens dedicated her performance to her father, Greg Hudgens.

Though the show was filled with a lot of spectacular performances, it was clear that FOX was looking for star power. They recruited Mario Lopez to play Vince Fontaine, who was not overly impressive, and Joe Jonas and DNCE to act as Johnny Casino and the Band. While Jonas seemed like a unnecessary addition, he did a respectable job. He sounded more like Joe Jonas, though, than a singer from the 1950s. Fortunately, not all of the stars that appeared in the special were a flop.

Jessie J delivered an upbeat and vocally impressive opening number with “Grease,” which introduced audiences to the cast. Also included in this number was Boyz II Men who later lent their voices to “Beauty School Dropout” as the Teen Angels. Ana Gasteyer played Rydell High’s Principal, and she was definitely the perfect person for the job. (And who didn’t love that time she did riffs with Boyz II Men in the opening number?) Other standouts were Haneefah Wood who was the always comedic and lovable Blanche.

Speaking of star power, FOX decided to pay tribute to the movie version of Grease not only in song, but in casting as well. Two familiar faces appeared in the live musical: Didi Conn and Barry Pearl. Conn and Pearl originated the roles of Frenchie and Doody, respectively, in the movie version of Grease. It was delightful to see the two Rydell High alumni. Conn played Vi, the waitress at the diner, and Pearl played Mr. Weaver, a television producer. The role was created for this production with Pearl in mind. The cameos provided some cute moments, including Vi’s heart to heart with Frenchie and Conn and Pearl’s curtain call where they wore their Pink Lady and T-Bird jackets.

Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough in Grease: Live. Photo Credit: Michael Becker/FOX
Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough in Grease: Live. Photo Credit: Michael Becker/FOX

The creative team that worked on the wasn’t too shabby either. Thomas Kail, the highly sought after director of Hamilton, directed Grease: Live, and Zach Woodlee, choreographer of Glee, choreographed. Woodlee’s choreography was intricate, but worked for the setting. It was showcased best in numbers like “Summer Nights” and “Hand Jive.”

One aspect Grease: Live had that other live musicals failed to add was a live audience. This element really enhanced the program, for productions in the past have felt awkward due to the silence. It felt more like a show with the audience present. That being said, the audience only was really seen or utilized during musical numbers. They definitely could have been used during the rest of the show, for some jokes seemed to fall flat because there were no reactions to the dialogue heard from the audience.

The cast of Grease: Live. Photo Credit: Kevin Estrada/FOX
The cast of Grease: Live. Photo Credit: Kevin Estrada/FOX

Props should also be awarded for the complex camera work in the production, although, sometimes it was too complex. In such scenes as the high school dance, it was hard to enjoy the choreography because of the movement and changing of cameras. FOX did add some other unnecessary elements such as the random back stage views hosted by Mario Lopez which just ate up time and distracted from the show as well as the golf cart ride that happened during “We Go Together.” It is especially lucky that the golf cart accident that almost happened, was quickly averted. (Note to self, do not try to sing and operate a golf cart simultaneously.)

Overall, Grease: Live put on a good show. From their luxurious sets on multiple stages to their huge dance numbers that also incorporated the audience, it should have been Grease: Live, the Spectacular. The production was obviously very high quality and enjoyable to watch. FOX definitely raised the bar with this show, demonstrating that they could effortlessly combine the worlds of theater and stage, find an appropriate and star-studded, diverse cast, and still pay tribute to the beloved movie they were following. Bravo Grease: Live! We are certainly hopelessly devoted to you.

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