Ambitious, electric Grease is the one that we want
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FOX made an impressive first attempt at a live musical with its exhilarating production of “Grease Live!” on Sunday. FOX also became the first network to have a live audience and incorporate them into the live show.
The broadcast opened with main characters Danny Zuko and Sandy Young (Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough) at a beach, saying their goodbyes after a summer romance. The camera quickly pulled out to reveal that the two were in front of a screen projecting the beach images, then moved a set piece to reveal the “Grease Live!” logo.
The musical aspect of the show kicked off from there with singer Jessie J filling Frankie Valli’s shoes with her soulful rendition of “Grease Is the Word.” A camera crew led her as she ventured around a few of the dressing room hallways and through a few of the production’s 21 sets, passing several members of the cast and company members who joined in the song for a few moments before switching out. The mobile performance was taken outside where umbrellas had to be incorporated into the choreography due to the rain. It was a unique way to start the show, and a fun and energetic way to introduce viewers to the exciting show’s thespians.
Director Thomas Kail utilized dozens of cameras that were placed and maneuvered around the studio lot to capture this event in cinematic fashion from as many angles as possible. The transitions from scene to scene were flawless and often innovative, providing the show the feel of a feature film.
Doody (played by the charming Jordan Fisher) had perhaps the most swoon-worthy vocals of the show with “Those Magic Changes,” a song that appears in the stage production of “Grease,” but is used only in the background of the film version. Kail and his production team manipulated Fisher’s performance as a montage-like sequence to go along with Danny’s attempts at becoming an athlete to try to impress Sandy once she unexpectedly arrives at his school.
“Summer Nights,” the first cast performance of the night, was well-choreographed by separating the male and female actresses between bleachers and lunch tables within the same gym. Controversial lyric “did she put up a fight,” sung by Carlos PenaVega’s Kenickie, was kept in the production, although many of the lyrics to other songs and dialogue had to be toned down for TV.
The squeaky clean “Greased Lightnin’” was masterfully choreographed and performed by Tveit, PenaVega, Fisher, Andrew Call, David Del Rio and the rest of the young male ensemble. Slick and risky moves were executed perfectly, and the audience seemed to love this homage of the iconic tune as they clapped and cheered along.
The audience played its own role in the production, moving from set to set and applauding to Hough and Tveit’s “You’re the One That I Want” and Keke Palmer’s “Freddy My Love,” which — like “Lightnin’” — included quick costume and set changes that went unnoticed as a result of fine camerawork.
The strong chemistry the main cast displayed together within their dialogue and musical numbers added elements of realism and hilarity to the production. The supporting cast also displayed this mighty rapport. Ana Gasteyer and Haneefah Wood drew most of the laughs from the audience with their excellent comedic timing and portrayals of Principal McGee and Blanche, respectively. Elle McLemore and Noah Robinson meshed well together as the overbearing cheerleader Patty Simcox and nerd Eugene in roles that were significantly expanded from the film and stage shows.
Mario Lopez and Joe Jonas’s band DNCE (dance) cameoed as Vince Fontaine and Johnny Casino and the Gamblers during the prom scene where strong, but too-vulgar-for-TV choreography emerged once again, to the audience’s delight.
Other notable cameos came from Boys II Men, who crushed their role as Teen Angel with their stirring and soulful rendition of “Beauty School Dropout.” Original cast members Barry Pearl and Didi Conn from the 1978 film version of “Grease” made appearances, with Conn’s Vi having a special moment with Carly Rae Jepson, who inherits Conn’s role of Frenchy.
The most memorable performance — and perhaps one of the more triumphant ones seen in a televised musical — was Vanessa Hudgens’ Betty Rizzo. The night before “Grease Live!” aired, Hudgens revealed that her father had passed away from cancer. In an incredibly brave and awe-inspiring move, Hudgens decided to continue on with her performance in her father’s honor, rather than be replaced by a fill-in.
Her sorrow could be sensed in her powerful vibrato during her rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” The song is Rizzo’s way of revealing that behind her tough facade, there is a person who genuinely cares about what people think of her. It was fitting under the circumstances as Hudgens heroically masked her emotions to deliver a masterful performance. At the end of the production, a card dedicated the production to the loving memory of Hudgens’ father, Greg.
The show wrapped with a visually stunning “We Go Together” that showed the entire cast and ensemble members run out of the gym set, backstage through other sets, and outside onto golf carts. They sang, and even danced, during the ride over to the carnival set — a move never done before on television — that excited the audience.
“Grease Live!” has set the bar sky high for live musicals. Any network that attempts one in the future will have to try very hard to top this thought-out and visually stunning spectacle.