It took less than five minutes into Fox’s Grease: Live for director Thomas Kail to throw down the gauntlet, kick it out the door and slam the door shut on just about any future live musicals when it comes to sheer technical dexterity. Jessie J, singing “Grease Is The Word,” navigated her way from a stage, through a living, working backstage, out into a street populated by umbrella-toting extras, serenaded the studio audience and hit her final mark in a single uninterrupted take. It didn’t matter for a second that Jessie J was out of breath maybe halfway through her journey. Melody is something that can wait for the cast recording to go up on iTunes. This production wasn’t about hitting notes or taking breath, but rather about making things breathtaking. And time after time, Grease: Live succeeded.
Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough had their names above the Grease: Live title, re-creating the roles made famous on screen by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. But it was future Hamilton Tony winner Kail who was the biggest star on Sunday night.
And with El Niño wreaking havoc on Southern California on Sunday morning, there were literal storm clouds on the horizon. But other than those umbrella wavers and some shoddy early lighting in outdoor scenes, the weather gods honored Grease: Live, allowing for the much vaunted outdoor climax, with the entire cast scooting around the WB lot in a fleet of golf carts while singing “We Go Together” only to arrive at a carnival and settle into choreography with precise accuracy. Once rain and wind were willing to recede for the convenience of the production, anything else that went wrong was a quibble, whether it was Hough’s mic static on “Hopelessly Devoted” or inconsistent and sometimes distracting crowd noise or reaction.
The little things that fell short of polished paled in comparison to the things that landed against all odds. I’m thinking of the transition from Pink Lady sleepover to USO stage that turned “Freddy My Love” from a typical afterthought into a real showcase for Keke Palmer’s Marty. I’m thinking of the school dance numbers punctuated by cameras craning across the length of a basketball court and other cameras making their way unobtrusively through a maelstrom of writhing bodies. I’m thinking of the immaculate stagecraft that allowed the Thunder Road car race to go from potentially cheesy into a wholly entertaining orchestration of lighting, smoke effects and camera moves. I’m thinking of the opening and closing numbers and their ability to take the show from stages into the outside world. NBC has made a winter tradition of live theater that, at its best, feels like it’s live theater, but Grease: Live showed if you have that desired vision, live television needn’t have any barriers.
Kail had to be the star because his actual stars were, if I’m being candid, not terrific.
In order for Danny Zuko to work, you have to buy there’s a duality between Summer Danny, who wins Sandy’s heart at the beach, and T-Bird (or Burger Palace Boys) Danny. Tveit nailed the sweet Danny, but never made T-Bird Danny believable for a second. You could suspend disbelief because Tveit’s got great pipes and he’s a spirited dancer, but even as an affectation, Danny’s swagger never emerged. There were more than a few times, “Greased Lightnin” in particular, when Tveit was just trying to keep up with the ensemble and the camera’s desire to return to our lead was a drag.
Hough’s acting was minimal and her singing was passable and since Sandy’s a bore under the best of circumstances, this never felt distracting. When Sandy got moving, that’s where Hough’s star power came out and I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the best-danced Sandys ever. Under those circumstances, it would have been great if Kail and the choreographers had crafted something different and special for Bad Girl Sandy’s “You’re the One That I Want” coming out, but instead they stuck strictly to the movie version. With Hough’s skills, that Sandy revelation could have been absolutely anything and instead it was, “Oh, they made her look just like Olivia Newton-John.”
There was actually a lot of that in Grease: Live, a shifting between genuine originality and moments in which a tremendous amount of effort was put into reproducing famous movie scenes. I don’t think it was easy, by any means, to do what the production did on the carbon copy numbers, but there were several places where I wished there had been more confidence in Kail and less certainty that the one that the audience wanted was a movie they’d seen before dozens of times.
With Tveit and Hough close to neutral, it was left for the deep supporting cast to shine and, for the most part, they did. Vanessa Hudgens maybe couldn’t equal Stockard Channing’s seasoned attitude, but she nailed Rizzo’s bruised pride and made sure that “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” packed a special punch. (Awareness of what Hudgens has been going through with the death of her father added weight to that number and her commitment to this production, but it wasn’t necessary to respect the end result.)
In addition to Palmer, the show got great vocal moments from Jordan Fisher as Doody and Joe Jonas as Johnny Casino, while You’re the Worst favorite Kether Donahue stole several scenes by force of will, line-delivery or hilarious physicality. Also adding punchlines were Ana Gasteyer as Principal McGee and Haneefah Wood as Blanche, plus Wendell Piece just happy to be invited to the party as Coach Calhoun. Less fortunate was Carly Rae Jepsen, very likable right up until she was saddled with the dud of a new song, “All I Need Is an Angel,” a way-too-on-the-nose plea for direction from Boyz II Men, who collectively made a very good Teen Angel.
The less said about Mario Lopez’s periodic intrusions the better.
Barry Pearl and Didi Conn provided Grease continuity to appease fans who craved such things.
Those fans may have been bothered by a couple of little changes to Sandy’s character, suddenly camera shy for reasons mostly relating to letting Hough escape the dance and get some wind before a big solo, and some tempered double entendres. But don’t worry, there were still jokes about date rape and the change-yourself-to-get-a-boy conclusion to remind you of how clunky this vehicle is when the man behind the wheel isn’t gunning the engine non-stop. This was not a time to overhaul Grease, to refresh its dated ideas about gender and race, to delete some scenes and songs that really drag, but rather a time to give audiences who love Grease a well-realized version of the movie they love. That meant sometimes using Kail as an overqualified karaoke artist, albeit a Randal Kleiser impersonator who’s far more agile than the real thing.
After two variably lifeless duds, NBC bounced back in the live musical department in December with The Wiz Live!, which is likely to be forgotten as adrenaline fuels our Grease: Live rhapsodic waxing. But I’d like to step back and, with clear eyes, reflect that there was an inspiration when it came to costumes and production design on The Wiz that Grease couldn’t touch in its slavish movie Xeroxing, but while Kenny Leon did a spectacular job of directing and staging The Wiz Live!, he didn’t direct the technical televised production, which was often stage-bound and claustrophobic.
With Kail entirely in charge here, Grease: Live got to do things that would have been impressive on a monthlong shooting schedule, but defied any conception of what could be possible in an on-the-fly shoot, in which a twisted ankle, a step-slow cameraman or inclement weather could undo everything.
Network: Fox; Studio: Paramount TV
Cast: Aaron Tveit, Julianne Hough, Vanessa Hudgens, Keke Palmer, Carly Rae Jepsen
Director: Thomas Kail
Aired Sunday, January 31 at 7 p.m. ET on Fox.