If there’s anything that seemed like it’d already become a reliable staple of the mid-2010s, it’s hate-tweeting live TV musicals. But Fox’s Grease: Live put a crimp in everyone’s plans for a night of social-media ridicule by succeeding — if not as a classic piece of musical reinvention — then at least as a great piece of collective stuntwork. Evel Knievel, meet Julianne Hough, Carly Rae Jepsen, Vanessa Hudgens, and untold numbers of cameramen with nerves of steel.
Not everything that worked about the three-hour telecast was due to careful planning. Hutchens was handed the musical’s so-called “11-o’clock number” with “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” which usually hardly ranks as the high point of any production of Grease. But having her doing such a rueful number had an extra meta layer, with nearly everyone in the viewing audience aware that Hudgens’ father passed away the previous night. She nailed the balladic drama far more capably than anyone who remembers her so-so solo records would have imagined… but, more importantly, it was a moment of inadvertently perfect casting: a girl singing about putting on a tough façade, being played by a girl who’s having to put on a tough façade.
The other bad timing that paid off in a silver lining? The L.A. rain, which created the need for a lot of umbrellas during Jessie J’s opening “Grease is the Word” number, a singular tracking shot that took the singer through an array of indoor and outdoor locations. Grease: Live was so expertly choreographed that it needed a crack of some sort to reinforce for the audience that what they were seeing wasn’t predestined for perfection… and the rain provided that reminder, in a far happier alternative to, say, someone actually blowing it.
Jepsen might have had the most uneven turn of the night. Whatever nascent acting chops she might have were sufficient for playing the naïf, as the would-be beautician Frenchy. She bears just enough resemblance to the movie version’s Didi Conn to make for a sweetly reincarnational vibe when Conn showed up to offer some advice as a helpful waitress. Jepsen looked a vision in all-pink (hair included), all-yellow (ditto), and the night’s most enormous eyelashes. But the production did Jepsen no favors by saddling her with the score’s one brand new song, “All I Need is an Angel,” which had the double whammy of being terribly written and slightly out of her range to boot.
Bringing in Hough for the Olivia Newton-John role involved some significant tradeoffs: She lacked ON-J’s vocal personality or charisma, but we know she can dance, and that she did — in an early cheerleader routine, the school dance number, and the good-girl-goes-slightly-bad finale, all of which involved some thrills of physicality that the “Physical” diva couldn’t do without careful editing. This being 2016, Sandy could no longer stamp out a cigarette before launching into “You’re the One That I Want,” but it was a treat to have Hough bringing the heat to a forum with a wider audience than her under-seen country music videos.
Color-blind casting was obviously the order of the day, to a certain extent, and bringing in Boyz II Men to do “Beauty School Dropout” with a more overtly doo-wop vibe was a smart move, even if their inevitable melisma kind of stepped on some of the lyrics’ laugh lines.
A bigger head-scratcher: what Joe Jonas’ DNCE crew was doing playing the sock-hop band in the “National Bandstand” dance-off number. We know that ‘50s accuracy is not what anyone comes to a production of Grease for, but the guitar player couldn’t put a wig on over his Mohawk? We haven’t seen that level of can’t-give-a-you-know-what since Christopher Walken decided not to dance in Peter Pan.
We all know ‘50s greasers were renowned for their six-pack abs, but as Danny Zuko, Broadway actor Aaron Tveit seemed to be trying on a few too many of John Travolta’s line readings and mannerisms while lacking Travolta’s goofball edge. Was he the ultimate one that we want? Maybe, maybe not. But given how easily that role could have gone to a random pop star, maybe we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth when he can act, sing, and hoof alongside Hough.
Before getting poignant with her climactic ballad, Hudgens had plenty of time to play it saucy — an on-the-nose piece of casting, given how the singer/actress practically pioneered the whole “Disney girl gone bad” meme. (She rolled her tongue around so much, you couldn’t help but think of one of Hudgens’ successors in that mode, Miley.) After Stockard Channing’s movie take on the role, it almost seemed odd to experience a pregnancy-scared Rizzo who isn’t actually menopausal. Hudgens already played Gigi on Broadway, so maybe this memorable screen comeback will mean she’ll get to do a post-collegiate musical on TV someday, too.
Another ex-Disney star, Keke Palmer, was the one who came off as the eldest Pink Lady, seeming in her sass closer to an Eartha Kitt than a teen delinquent… but at least her casting necessitated bringing back a song from the stage version that wasn’t included in the movie, “Freddy My Love.” If there was a truly perfect piece of casting here, it was Ana Gasteyer as the principal, recapturing Eve Arden in every way. If only Gasteyer got to join Boyz II Men for more than a few bars of that opening number.
The script felt less subversive than the movie’s, which was in itself a far shot less raunchy than the original 1971 stage version. But fans of the show could at least be pleased that not everything was neutered in the manner of the sanitized “school edition,” although “Greased Lightning” definitely had to settle for the cleaned-up lyrics. (When it comes to rhyming “s—“ and “tit,” the Fox brass definitely turn into Sandra Dee, understandably.)
The real biggest stars of the night? Other than Hudgens’s triumphant turn in the final act, those would be he crew, really. Calling it “a masterpiece of blocking” may sound like damning with faint praise. But the unassailable production values were their own reward, in a live theater event that looked like a movie 80 percent of the time, and deliberately reminded you of its staginess with behind-the-scenes cutaways and audience applause the other 20 percent — a combination that worked better that it had any right to.
Still looking to hate-tweet a live musical? Fox helpfully advertised an upcoming musical version of The Passion, which may or may not offer an outlet for all that pent-up snark.