‘Grease Live’ proves that grease is still the word

As told by live tweets, FOX's broadcast breathes new life into the classic musical

| February 1, 2016

Grease

Our thoughts at the Niner Times go out to the Hudgens family at this time of grieving over the loss of Vanessa’s father from stage IV cancer on Saturday night.

Continuing in the tradition of “The Sound of Music Live,” “Peter Pan Live” and “The Wiz Live,” FOX put on their own live production of a classic show with a production of “Grease” broadcast on live television. With “The Sound of Music Live” and “Peter Pan Live” drawing tepid reviews upon broadcast, in contrast with the uproarious praise directed at “The Wiz Live,” the expectations for “Grease Live” were all over the place, given the intense spectrum of results thus far. With an impressive cast, including Broadway vet Aaron Tveit and “Dancing with the Stars” alum Julianne Hough in the main roles, as well as Vanessa Hudgens, Carly Rae Jepsen, Keke Palmer, Mario Lopez, Carlos PenaVega, Wendell Pierce, Elle McLemore and Ana Gasteyer in supporting roles, “Grease Live” looked the part from the start.

As a child, “Grease” had a big part in the Heilman household, we even have a (really) soft spot for “Grease 2” in our hearts as one of our biggest guilty pleasure movies. So as “Grease Live” started, the excitement kicked in pretty quick on my end with Jessie J’s opening of the classic Frankie Valli opening credits song aptly titled “Grease.”

Following the cast throughout the massive set built for the production, the song ends in front of Rydell High School, much like the 1978 film. Once the show starts, it’s obvious that the casting for the project, however strange for some roles, was hit down pat for the most part. From her opening moments, it’s clear that, like Stockard Channing in the film, Hudgens owns this show as Rizzo. Whatever “nice girl” image that was set with her role as Gabriella Montez in the “High School Musical” films that wasn’t previously destroyed by her role in “Spring Breakers” was completely destroyed her. Hudgens has a fire within her performance that works wonders for this show and she steals every single scene she’s in.

Enter Sandy. Julianne Hough over the years hasn’t always been the strongest actress, though she’s made a name for herself as the “girl next door” type, which she fills out better than she ever has before as Sandy. It’s clear that Hough is far more fitted for theatre than that of film, which is not an insult in the slightest. Hough did a great job as Sandy, shining in the scenes of her complete wholesomeness. When Hough transferred over to the “Sexy Sandy” we all know from the finale of the show, she surprised me in her level of sex appeal, something I didn’t expect from an actress so known for her wholesomeness. Such a transition showed more of Hough’s range that we haven’t been able to see before. Hough needs to ditch films like “Dirty Grandpa” and head directly for Broadway.

But what is Sandy without her Danny? Known primarily for his stint on Broadway shows such as “Rent” and “Hairspray,” as well as a supporting role in the 2012 film adaption of “Les Misérables,” Aaron Tveit steps in John Travolta’s classic shoes as Danny Zuko. While Tveit is no Travolta in how iconic his performance, casting a Broadway actor in this role was a smart move on the casting director’s part, as the role of Danny isn’t to be taken lightly. Is Tveit a bit too pretty to be Danny? Perhaps, as the T-Birds are supposed to be a bit more rough-and-tumble than pretty, Tveit has the acting and singing chops to pull it off despite his aesthetic. There were moments where Tveit did the same weird vocal fry things that Travolta did in the original film (ex. the weird way they both sang the final note in “Summer Nights”), but props to him for sticking to accuracy, despite if it still doesn’t work perfectly.

And the supporting roles outside of Hudgens? Also perfectly cast, with Jepsen and Palmer stealing most of the spotlight when Hudgens wasn’t. I had no doubts with Palmer, seeing as how wonderful of a performance she gave in “Scream Queens,” I figured this show was a no-brainer for her. As for Jepsen, on the other hand, I found it hard to believe at how the singer behind “Call Me Maybe” could pull off Frenchy, but like an Eskimo Pie from the Frosty Palace, I have come to eat my words. Jepsen has a wonderful theatrical quality about her and the reverence for the character showed in her performance. Yet the reverence hit a heartbreakingly beautiful high with the casting of Didi Conn, the original Frenchy from the film, as Vi, the waitress at the Frosty Palace that shares many exchanges with Frenchy during the show. The multi-generational Frenchy exchanges brought out a lot of emotion to the show and really showed not only the camaraderie between sharing a role, but also how someone like Jepsen can make a role personal to herself, while still keeping the elements of the character that we love there.

And don’t even get me started on Patti Simcox, because if Hudgens didn’t steal the show, McLemore did. Expanding the character to that of the stage version more than that of the über-sweet film version, Simcox was shown with her more sinister side to her in this production, to which McLemore played with perfectly. Starting off as the annoying, well-meaning girl that we all knew from the film, the further development of Simcox revealed something a bit more shadier, one that I liked a lot in terms of the character, as I always thought there was more going on there than meets the eye. McLemore slayed each scene she was in with humor and grace and became the complete antithesis to Hudgens’ Rizzo. They simply are a match made in heaven.

The wonderful thing about this rendition of “Grease” is that there is a perfect of old and new, creating a new generation of “Grease” fanatics from a new take on a classic story. This is most shown in the “Beauty School Dropout” sequence, in which instead of a heartthrob like Frankie Avalon performing the piece, this production turned to R&B sensations Boyz II Men to perform the piece. Looking at this at first, it’s hard not to look at it with a bit of confusion, but the second they all open their mouths for the song, all doubt is gone and the justification of their presence is made clear immediately. This was a pitch perfect mix of old and new that paid off big time and really put how the rest of the show was going to go in its place.

But not all choices work in this show, there were two things that stuck out pretty badly in the grand scheme of things. Much like the modernization of the show with Boyz II Men and how that worked so well, I found the inclusion of Joe Jonas as Johnny Casino, the performer at the school dance, completely out of place and strange. I’m not sure if there simply wasn’t anyone else to cast or if it was an idea from the start, Jonas doesn’t have the theatrical chops to pull off the few minutes he was on screen for. Sure, he was a great performer with his brothers, but alone, it really didn’t work for me this time.

Beyond this, the Thunder Road sequence, arguably one of the best scenes in the original film, felt strangely executed on screen. I could’ve gotten into some stage effects for the race, but the way that the cameras shot the race, constantly shaking the camera and even putting a camera in the steering wheels of the cars, didn’t work at all. Perhaps I’m just being petty, but this scene stuck out to me like a sore thumb.

But what’s the point if the music isn’t good, right? But it is, my friend. “Grease Live” hits nearly every note it strives for in the music department, giving each cast member their chance to shine on screen. From Palmer’s stunning “Freddy, My Love,” to Hudgens’ heartbreakingly show-stopping “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” to the perfectly choreographed and performed ensemble pieces like “Summer Nights” and “We Go Together,” the music was alive and well with “Grease Live.”

As for how live productions go, “Grease Live” is probably the best I’ve seen so far (I haven’t seen “The Wiz Live” yet, so I’m not 100% educated to make that claim completely). From its nearly pitch perfect cast, with some show-stopping performances from Jepsen, McLemore, and especially from Hudgens, wonderful music numbers, amazingly detailed sets, great cinematography and an overall reverence for the source material, I can ignore some of the few mistakes it made along the way. If you like “Grease” (which I know a lot of people certainly do not), you will be head-over-heels for “Grease Live” and how well done it was. I couldn’t imagine it having gone any better realistically, especially when we begin to compare it to that of “The Sound of Music Live” and “Peter Pan Live.” Sorry, Carrie Underwood, you’re much more Sandy than you are Maria.

Excuse my language, I forgot that I was tweeting for the paper in the moment.

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Television, Theater, Uncategorized

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at editor@ninertimes.com for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.

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