Grease Live: The One That We Wanted

Fox tried its hand at the television musical genre last night with an ambitious taking on of the 1971 musical and 1978 film Grease. Starring Julienne Hough as the blond haired Sandy Olsen Young and Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko, the special satisfied the live musical niche in a way that only Grease could.

While NBC’s recent takes on the live musical (The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and The Wiz) garnered fair ratings but fell fairly flat critically – excluding The Wiz – Fox’s musical differs in the fact that Grease claims one of the most commercially successful soundtracks of all time, with over 28 million copies sold since it’s release. Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music needs a cinematic majesty to convey it’s grandeur – sorry Carrie Underwood, but your American Idol days didn’t exactly give you any acting chops. For those that can remember the 1954 Mary Martin Peter Pan, the 2014 version may have seemed like a quaint homage. Those without an AARP membership would probably wonder why Allison Williams was playing a pubescent male. But Grease comes with star power – enough star power to command an audience and an interest in an age when most Millennials stream their content on an iPhone or an Apple TV.

Grease Live was smart to capitalize on the success and fame of the 1978 production. Travolta and Newton-John’s performances are iconic in their own right. But to piggyback on the celebrity of the movie and the show itself, Fox pulled in a cabaret of modern semi-stars to pull in millennial viewers: DWTS’s Julienne Hough (competition TV, check), High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens (teeny bobber mega-franchise alum, check), Carly Jepson of “Call Me Maybe” fame (bubblegum pop base, check), among others.

The production itself was well done. For a live special, the costuming and props were detailed and the set design and changes were downright slick. Hough delights as Sandy and brings some serious dance moves to the screen. Her mannerisms even evoke Newton-John – when she flits around the screen in that innocent-yet-oblivious way, it’s clear why Newton-John gave Hough her blessing.

Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was less spot-on. To be fair, Travolta casts a long shadow. But with the myriad of other Hollywood-ish players around, Tveit gets buried a bit – and that’s not bad. He gets through the singing without any real faux pas, and the dancing is good – especially when he’s blessed enough to dance with Hough.

Hudgens as Betty Rizzo was a bit of a gamble. She does her damndest to pull off Rizzo’s punky, cynical attitude. And she looks the part. But Hudgens’s speaking voice is simply much higher than Stockard Channing’s sexy, smoky alto. She pulls off the singing – “There are Worse Things I Could Do” was significantly better than “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee” – and she harmonizes with the rest of the Pink Ladies beautifully. Overall, Hudgens is to be commended, especially given the loss of her father the very same day.  Stockard Channing, like Travolta, left very, very big shoes to fill.

The production succeeded in merging the ’71 musical with the ’79 film while adding a bit of originality. In almost all cases, it left a better product for a 21st Century live television production. Elle McLemore played Patti Simcox, the cheerleading student councilwoman who serves as an antithesis to Rizzo. The role was amplified quite a bit for the live production, and McLemore brought significant pizazz and ample camp to the role. Similarly, Eugene Felsnic (originally played by Cumberland’s own Eddie Deezen) is given a larger role for the live production.

Keke Palmer’s take on Marty Maraschino (like the cherry) can come off a bit more brash than Dinah Manoff’s portrayal. But that’s alright, because Palmer’s rendition of “Freddy My Love” was a spectacular sight for a live performance. The impressive set and costume change stunned and the vocal harmonies were pleasant. Fun fact: “Freddy My Love” may sound familiar to fans of the 1978 film, as it was featured both in the film’s background and on the soundtrack.

The one off-note to the original spins was Carly Rae Jepson’s original song “All I Need is an Angel.” While Jepson manages to get through the solo, the style of the original song simply befits the 2004 Top 20 more than the 1950’s setting or the 1970’s original production(s).

Overall, Grease Live did exactly what it was supposed to do: entertain. Fox never set out to replace Travolta or Newton-John (good luck, Tveit). Rather, the production served as a homage to the spectacle of the film and a vehicle to deliver the songs and stories of Grease to a new generation. Along the way, the team was able to deliver some “Magic Changes” of their own.

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