‘Grease: Live!’ TV Review – An Energetic, Entertaining Musical Event

Grease Live Cast
The Finale of ‘Grease: Live!’ (Photo by Kevin Estrada © 2016 Fox Broadcasting CO)

Now, this is how you stage a live musical event on TV! Grease: Live! has upped the bar for live network musical productions, with excellent performances, terrific choreography, and a behind the scenes team that absolutely nailed it. Director Thomas Kail kicked the musical off with “Grease is the Word” sung by Jessie J. while strutting through backstage passageways, working her way through sets as she emerged outside to finish the song while joined by key members of the huge cast. El Nino reared its ugly head and the cast members were forced to incorporate umbrellas, but the bad weather didn’t put a damper on what turned out to be the best live musical on television to date.

I’d love to see a lengthy behind the scenes video focusing on the camera crew who flawlessly delivered a musical that flowed smoothly without missing a beat. The onscreen choreography was first-rate but what was going on off screen must have been entertaining to behold.

Not every element from the beloved 1978 musical starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John made its way into the TV production, but the vibe was captured and the ‘50s came alive during this three-hour production. So what if the dance competition didn’t end with the T-Birds mooning the camera? The story carried on without it and still made sense. The decision to make Sandy (Julianne Hough) camera shy and thus open the door for Danny (Aaron Tveit) to dance with Cha Cha (Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer) was also completely in keeping with this version’s sweeter tone.

Song lyrics were adjusted for primetime television, although there were innuendos a plenty left in the script. Grease: Live! also altered a few relationships, making Rizzo (Vanessa Hudgens) and Sandy less adversarial going into the final act. It also made Eugene (Noah Robbins) the hero of the drag race which was a nice touch. And speaking of the drag race, kudos again to director Kail and the camera crew/lighting department for making a drag race between two cars that weren’t moving look thrilling.

The Rydell dance scenes were a highlight of the production, with Joe Jonas and DNCE’s performance of “Born to Hand Jive” and its high-energy choreography more than living up to expectations. The puddle skirts swirled, the T-Birds and Pink Ladies all had their moments to shine, and I’ll bet viewers at home were doing the Hand Jive along with the cast. The dance competition led directly into Julianne Hough’s amazing take on “Hopelessly Devoted,” which was moved from the Pink Ladies sleepover scene to the high school dance segment. Its move made sense in the overall story, but had viewers worried when it wasn’t included in the sleepover scene.

Vanessa Hudgens Grease Live
Vanessa Hudgens in ‘Grease: Live! (Photo by Michael Becker © 2016 Fox Broadcasting CO)

As for the performances, Vanessa Hudgens is to be especially commended for handling the role of Rizzo, Grease‘s bad girl and leader of the Pink Ladies, just a day after the death of her father. Hudgens went on with the show, dedicating her performance to her dad, and delivering one of the best performances of the show. Hudgens’ “There Are Worst Things I Could Do” was absolutely heart-wrenching, and she nailed both sides of Rizzo, never once slipping out of character.

Everyone knows Julianne Hough can dance but not everyone knew she could sing, and the fact she was taking on Olivia Newton-John songs had some Grease fans unsure of the casting choice. But those naysayers were hushed after “Summer Lovin”, a fan-favorite number that proved Hough was going to be just fine as Grease: Live’s Sandy. Hough has the sweet and innocent vibe down pat, and there was solid chemistry between her and Tveit.

I wasn’t familiar with Aaron Tveit prior to Grease: Live! but you can bet his performance has me wanting to check out his filmography. Tveit was better in the more awkward or sweet scenes, but he did a decent job of pulling off Zuko’s bad boy swagger (although he never matched Hudgens in the swagger department). Tveit seemed to constantly be on the verge of a smile, so some of the scenes in which he’s supposed to be detached/standoff-ish about the whole Danny/Sandy relationship didn’t quite play out real. However, those moments were easily forgiven as the rest of his Grease: Live! performance was outstanding.

Carly Rae Jepsen’s Frenchy was fun, Kether Donohue was a blast to watch as scene-stealer Jan, and Keke Palmer shined as Marty. Palmer’s delivery of “Freddy My Love” was mesmerizing. The actors who made up the T-Bird crew – Carlos PenaVega (Kenickie), David Del Rio (Putzie), Jordan Fisher (Doody), and Andrew Call (Sonny) – gave enthusiastic performances, with Fisher taking “Those Magic Changes” from just another Grease song and making it into a memorable number.

Songs were moved around a bit and a few minor storylines were altered, but that didn’t matter. Grease: Live! was a joyous celebration of musicals and in fact nothing captured that joyousness better than the musical’s finale featuring the entire cast. Director Kail, his crew, and the cast gave audiences an incredible new take on Grease that lives up to the original but also stands on its own.