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Grease Live! Reviewed by Christopher Stone

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Following the lead of NBC-TV, America’s Fox Television Network mounted a Broadway musical as live television production of Grease, on Sunday, January 31, that was the one that we wanted, and, as it happened, a landmark television event.

Technical wizardry, lush production values, innovative staging, and athletic, high-spirited performances coalesced, making Grease Live! 2016’s first “must-see” live broadcast.

As directed by Hamilton’s Thomas Kail, with an outstanding creative hand from that new Broadway phenomenon’s set designer, David Korins, Grease Live! was a rip-roaring spectacle that thundered through multiple stages at the Warner Brothers studios on a stormy El Nino Sunday, in Burbank, California  – stampeding viewers with talent, energy, and production innovation. Listen up, wannabe producers of Broadway musicals on television: Grease Live! has set the bar to near unreachable heights for the next such production.

More than fourteen million, viewers watched this one-of-a-kind broadcast. It was a Broadway on commercial television as it had never before been seen. Now, via DVD and download, you can watch it, too.

A Grease Roots Movement

Set in 1959, at the fictional Rydell High School, Grease’s genesis was rooted in the Greasers memories that co-author Jim Jacobs took from his years at Chicago’s real-life William Howard Taft School.

In its original, 1971, Chicago incarnation, Grease, the musical, was a dicey, gritty show that exposed the dubious underbelly of the 1950s, middle class, teen Greasers subculture from which the show took its name.

By the time Grease reached Broadway the following year, dicey and gritty had been replaced by warm, fuzzy, and nostalgic.

If the mid-century Greasers counterculture had been exemplified on the motion picture screen by the likes of Rebel Without a Cause’s James Dean and On the Waterfront’s Marlon Brando, Broadway’s super hit Grease owed more to 77 Sunset Strip’s Gerald Lloyd “Kookie” Kookson III and Dobie Gillis’s Maynard G. Krebs than it did to Waterfront’s Terry Malloy and Rebel’s Jim Stark.

When, in 1978, Allan Carr, the openly gay P.T. Barnum of that disco dazed decade, produced the motion picture version of Grease, he added what would become three Top 40 smash hit songs, “Grease,” “Hopelessly Devoted,” and “You’re the One That I Want,” to the Broadway score. Further stacking the odds in his favor, Carr gave us John Travolta, as Danny Zuko, the ultimate high school Greaser, and Olivia Newton-John, as goody-goody Sandra Dee who, out of socio-romantic necessity, morphs into a man-killing Bad Sandy.

Top-loaded with energy, talent, and all the right moves, Grease, the motion picture, became an international box-office giant and transformed the lighter than air musical vehicle into an iconic American phenomenon.

Before Grease Live!, director Thomas Kail conquered Broadway with Hamilton.
Before Grease Live!, director Thomas Kail conquered Broadway with Hamilton.

For television, Director Kail cast cutie patootie, Aaron Tveit as Zuko – in this production, a Greaser for the twenty-first century. Tveit, 32, is a Broadway and television fixture. In Grease, he was a singing and dancing dream, even if he lacked charisma and swagger enough to fill Travolta’s black leather jacket.

Falling short of Travolta’s cockiness and swagger, Aaron Tveit didn’t quite fill the movie Danny’s black leather jacket.
Falling short of Travolta’s cockiness and swagger, Aaron Tveit didn’t quite fill the movie Danny’s black leather jacket.

Julianne Hough’s Sandy fell short on characterization, lacking the poignancy and wistfulness for which the role calls. As the finale’s Bad Sandy, Hough wasn’t dangerous enough to make a Greaser shape up. But she sang and danced athletically and well.

Real-life drama and loss that played out offstage, added poignancy to Vanessa Hudgens portrayal of bad girl, Betty Rizzo. The death of Hudgens’ father came just hours before Grease Live!  Becoming the Poster Teen for “The show must go on,” Hudgen’s real-life tragedy added dimension and determination to her Rizzo, and fueled her heart wrenching solo, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”

It may have been raining in Hudgens’ heart, but the actress/singer’s bravura performance soared.

Vanessa Hudgens’ s real life tragedy belied her bravura performance as Rizzo.
Vanessa Hudgens’ s real life tragedy belied her bravura performance as Rizzo.

Adding one more laurel to an outstanding career that has spanned sitcoms, drama, sketch comedy, and musicals, Ana Gasteyer, a consistently remarkable talent, maximized the minimal role of Principal McGee.

Charly Rae Jepsen, TV’s Frenchy, the Pink Ladies ne’er do well hair stylist, cum ear piercer, did not make anyone forget Didi Conn’s scene stealing Frenchy in the motion picture version. Perhaps that’s because TV Frenchy was twice handicapped. First Charly Rae Jepsen’s Frenchy was saddled with a forgettable new ditty, “All I Need is an Angel.”

And then, possibly in an effort to bring a dab of diversity to this Wonder Bread WASP musical, Frenchy was given two more Teen Angels than requested, or needed, in the persons of Boyz II Men, crooning the cautionary “Beauty School Dropout,” a standout as performed by Frankie Avalon in the motion picture, but much less effective here.

The Teen Angel role and the song should have been handed to The Bieb, or even to Nick Jonas.

Mario Lopez was a delightful, dimpled Vince Fontaine, a Dick Clark wannabe who brings his not quite American Bandstand televised dance show to Rydell High.

With ratings and reviews for Grease Live! in the stratosphere, the Fox network will undoubtedly do another Broadway musical as live television. Perhaps they can strike teen lightning twice with a Thomas Kail-directed production of Bye, Bye, Birdie.

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