Grease has never been a favourite of mine. I like about two of the songs; I’ve never watched the John Travolta movie all the way through in one sitting; the plot is hazy and the themes it supposedly tackles are simply not there. In fact, as expected of a story set in a high school, the messages it sends out about social and gender hierarchies are disturbing. Its strengths have always been in how upbeat the soundtrack and how lively the dancing is, making it fit perfectly in the stereotype mold for musical theatre, but at the end of the day, that had always been it.
Nonetheless, I admit to being swept up in the hype that preceded FOX’s Grease: Live.
With a big Broadway name like Aaron Tveit starring as Danny Zuko and countless behind-the-scenes videos taking Grease enthusiasts through the rigorous process behind the production, I was hopeful and excited. By the time news was released that Hamilton director Tommy Kail was on board, I was more than ready for Jan. 31.
Unfortunately, all the things that FOX seemed to take pride in with their take on a televised musical — the celebrity-studded cast, the songs specifically composed for this adaptation, the interaction with the live audience, the set design split across the Warner Bros. Studios — are also the same things that ultimately ruined Grease: Live for me.
That said, the cast was good, but it did not impress more than it could have. While I’d loved Tveit since his Catch Me If You Can days, my appreciation for him as Danny Zuko was half-hearted. His singing did not disappoint, and certainly sparked an eagerness to see him back on the Broadway stage, but standing in the shadow of Travolta’s Zuko and with co-star Julianne Hough overtaking him every choreographed step of the way, his dancing fell a little flat. The opposite holds true for Hough, who despite being one of the best I’ve seen dancing as Sandy Young, gave a half-hearted performance during “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” Her cheerleading tryout scene opposite Heathers’ Elle McLemore as Patty Simcox, however, was by itself enough to establish her as the real star of the show for me, even if her singing was not quite as impressive as her dancing.
Vanessa Hudgens’ performance as Rizzo was incredible in its own right, especially with the passing of her father just the night before the show; the cast dedicated the production of the show to him. Alongside her as the other Pink Ladies are Keke Palmer as Marty and Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy, who both delivered where they needed to. Jessie J, Joe Jonas and Boyz II Men all cameo to perform various songs, and with household faces like Mario Lopez in the cast, there was no shortage of applause from the audience when it came to close—up shots, no dancing nor singing needed.
The production went where NBC’s live musicals have not gone before. There is a dazzling charm in the blending of theatre and television that FOX attempted to accomplish with Grease: Live, and it’s certainly different, if nothing else. It was big, it was flashy, the theatricality was impressive, it brought in ratings — and for a FOX production, that probably means they’d checked everything off their list. I am embarrassed to admit I expected more, possibly too much, for if they were willing to try new things, so much so that they would have a new song composed, wouldn’t this mean moving away from the soullessness of the original Grease? To my chagrin, apparently not.
The result of FOX’s attempt at a televised musical is a production that felt like one of Glee’s Super Bowl special episodes which I happen to appreciate more than despise, because it usually meant story and character progress (finally) and a lot of show-stopping songs. With the weaknesses remaining where they always were, and the strengths the same as they always were, my opinion of Grease stands.
Photo Credit: Kevin Estrada/ FOX