What might have seemed like a fool’s folly for television to attempt to replicate the musical Grease in a three hour long “live” performance; instead turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining, often exhilarating and well produced musical romp down memory lane for audiences of all ages. Following on the heels of NBC-TV’s live productions of “The Sound Of Music” and the recent “The Wiz”, Fox-TV recruited a cast of some of today’s most popular young musical and dancing talent to follow in the formidable footsteps and indelible screen memory of John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and others from the beloved 1978 film version of Grease.
“Grease Live” featured the talents of Julianne Hough, formerly of TV’s “Dancing With The Stars” and the film “Footloose”, as Sandy; as well as Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko, Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, Carlos PenaVega as Kenicki, Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy, Kiki Palmer as Marty and many more.
The show opened with singer Jessie J’s rendition of the title song immortalized by Frankie Valli in the original film. Jessie J performed the immediately recognizable tune with style and sass, strutting throughout the various Warner Brothers Studio backlot stages filled with literally acres of sets, both indoor and outdoor, in one long tracking shot that hinted at the elaborate production to come. However, despite that impressive opening, the production faced problems from the very beginning as clearly it had been scheduled for many scenes, especially the iconic carnival finale, to be staged outdoors. However, an unpredictable El Nino rainstorm in Los Angeles forced the production to quickly adapt to the inclement weather that threatened the live event, even to the point of erecting a mammoth covering high over the outdoor opening scene outside of Rydell High’s building facade.
Producers also made a sometimes questionable choice to add a live audience of outsiders to participate as observers to several of the scenes. More often than not, the live audience tended to distract from some of the musical numbers and performers.
Certainly the memory of John Travolta and Olivia Newton John hung heavy over the production prompting unavoidable comparisons. However, the cast overall performed in degrees ranging from merely average and very admirable to absolutely stellar moments. Hough’s turn as Sandy seemed a bit shaky at first; but the dancer turned singer/actress gradually became more confident, convincing and ultimately delightfully entertaining as the night evolved. Her fairly strong vocal performance of the song “Hopelessly Devoted to You” sealed the deal as being the right choice for this production, channeling the look and emotion of Newton-John’s original performance.
Tveit had a tough challenge trying to make the character of Danny Zuko his own, in the shadow of John Travolta. As with Hough, his performance also grew slightly more believable as the production unfolded, but still with a touch of weakness.
Among the standouts of the evening was Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy, giving a performance that clearly showed the “Call Me Maybe” singer indeed has some comedic acting chops. Jepsen also shared one of the evening’s most poignant scenes, as the original Frenchy, Didi Conn gave advice to Jepsen’s Frenchy character minutes before the appearance of Boyz II Men as a group Teen Angel singing “Beauty School Dropout”. The moment with the two Frenchys on-screen was enough to induce tears of nostalgia, as two different generations of actresses played out a scene with a character they both shared between themselves, and for we the audience.
However, the undeniable star of the evening was singer/actress Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo. Hudgens firmly planted her own mark on the character, so indelibly associated with the amazing performance of Stockard Channing in the film original. While Hudgens did not, indeed could not, eclipse Channing’s performance; the young singer convincingly showed her own style of brash sexiness and confidence to make her Rizzo wonderfully engaging. Her rendition of the signature song, “That’s The Worst Thing I Could Do” was filled with enough strength, emotion and power to nearly rival the film original.
In fact, Hudgens noteworthy performance was all the more remarkable because she performed the entire 3-hour live production flawlessly; while dealing internally with the tragically emotional burden that her father died from cancer the night before the broadcast. There was no hint of distraction nor holding back in her performance; which she had dedicated to her father’s memory.
Other highlights of the show included the aforementioned original Frenchy, Didi Conn from the 1978 film, this time as Vi, the waitress and actor Barry Pearl, Doody from the original film’s T-Bird gang, as a Rydell High teacher.
Throughout the show, the production values were fairly good, save for a noticibly unfortunate technical glitch on the network’s part where the audio during one portion was lost for several minutes. “Extra” TV show host Mario Lopez as Dick Clark knock-off character, Vince Fontaine managed to remind us that the show was a live broadcast where actors can forget their lines. During one of Lopez’ key moments, he referred to the fictional dance show National Bandstand as AMERICAN Bandstand, clearly mixing up the fictional show with it’s real life inspiration.
The ambitious production closed on a wonderfully high note with the finale of “You’re The One That I Want” where both Hough and Tveit came close to an almost perfect homage to Travolta and Newton-John’s classic carnival duet that closed the original film. Staged inside the school gym, most likely set up as a last second production compromise due to the rainy weather outdoors; the performance was still incredibly energetic, nostalgic and entertaining.
Following that, the entire cast moved outdoors ( apparently after the real life rain subsided ) to what must have been the originally planned carnival set for a high energy dance finale to the song “We Go Together” surrounded by an enthusiastic audience for what was nothing less than a rousing and smile-inducing musical conclusion.
Like any live performance, Grease Live had its flaws; but they were minimal compared to the sum total of nostalgic joy, dazzling choreography and often amazing musical performances presented by the mammoth cast and it’s key players.
As the song says, Grease is the word. But it was delivered with a few more adjectives as well.
Ambition, style and great fun.