“Grease” is one of my least favorite musicals. If I worked at a network and was told to make a list of musicals we should do, “Grease” would be near the bottom of a list topped by “Pippin” Circus Edition and “Next to Normal” Full Throttle With Donations to Mental Healthcare. I think I watched it as a kid probably every day for 10 years so that is roughly 5 billion times. Consequently, I had to take a really really long, bitter, hate-filled break from it for most of my adult years. I am not exaggerating when I say that Fox’s live production has made me love this show again. This was FLAWLESS. I mean it wasn’t because I love finding flaws and I will but it was SUPERB AND WONDERFUL. We’re going to go through it scene by scene in real time because that’s who I am and that’s who I care about.
The first thing I noticed (aside from Julianne Hough’s kind of wooden acting but it doesn’t matter because she is so goshdarned angelic looking) was that they changed my favorite line of the movie. During the beach prologue, in the movie, Sandy asks “Danny, is this the end?” and Danny goes, “No Sandy, it’s only the beginning” and then I would always shout “OF THE MOVIE!” get it I was so funny. It was different here.
The real opening had Jessie J singing “Grease is the Word” in spectacular form – with better-than-Birdman cinematography tracking her as she runway-walked through all the soundstages, dressing rooms, and outdoor space in one single, uninterrupted, flawless camera shot. AMAZING. Better than Birdman. Did I say that already? It was better than Birdman. I’m not usually a fan of Jessie J; we have to listen to her songs a lot in my hip hop classes and they are not my cup of tea (very East London girls-yeah boys-woo lets-go-clubbing stuff) but she was wonderful here! It was a brilliant idea to have us see the backstage goings on, because seeing everyone get ready amped up the excitement for when they’d make the switch into character and really brought the audience right up into it.
“Grease is the Word” ended in front of the enormous high school set’s front doors. Already, this set blows every other televised musical’s single soundstage bullshit out of the water, and we haven’t even seen most of the sets yet. Speaking of water, people were upset that it was really raining outside, and they had a lot of outdoor scenes, but it was fine to me. I mean it rains in regular life so why wouldn’t it rain in the world of Rydell High? It is earth still, right? no biggie.
Inside the school’s front hallway, we see very much alive Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko, chatting up a gal as he does. I love Aaron Tveit. He is so talented and wonderful on Broadway. But here, at least in these opening scenes, his timing is a little weird, like he is on a delay that’s usually required onstage. I think he is better in live theatre than on TV but still, I’m nitpicking because he’s the bomb like Lawrence’s head. How great are the rest of the T-Birds though! They’re all so strong. Sonny’s first scene with Principal McGee was hilarious. Ana Gasteyer should be in everything. Can’t wait for her to sing. Do you know she played Elphaba on Broadway? She can sang.
I love the Pink Ladies too. I mean Carly Rae Jepsen is a little weak as Frenchy, but it’s a big role to fill for a non-actor. Kether Donahue with her hilarious antics and Keke Palmer with her SASS make up for it. Incredible. This is so well cast, I can’t deal. Even the tiny role of Blanche became a standout with new favorite Haneefah Wood’s amazing facial expressions during Principal McGee’s announcements. “If you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter” brought with it some epic side-eye. The most perfect casting of the whole thing is Noah Robbins as Eugene. He’s so small. And so funny. He’s also a great tweeter. Just amazing.
Another set is introduced with the gym/cafeteria, along with another well cast character – Elle McLemore (“Bring It On” cheerleader) as Patty Simcox (cheerleader captain). We also learn that Kether Donahue’s Jan is going to steal this entire show, as she puts an apple on Patty’s seat and calls it a ‘Mackintush’. Most importantly, we get more of Vanessa Hudgens’s Rizzo. She’s great, and it’s unbelievably impressive that she did this show after her father died. I mean. Jesus H.
The first musical number of the show, “Summer Lovin’”, showed off all the great choreography and camera work that makes this production stand out. There were some rushed switches between the girls’ and the boys’ parts but overall it was excellent. That face Danny made during the final “Oh”! Julianne Hough has a pretty voice! Who knew! She has no idea what to do with her arms when she’s not dancing though.
The biggest takeaway from this first number is that it is ESSENTIAL for these televised musicals to have a live audience. The biggest failing for previous shows was how awkward it was to finish a roaring number with silence. Having live cheers and applause is making this exhilarating.
The second biggest takeaway is that it has been like 15 minutes and they mentioned Salt Lake City and Utah about 4300 times. Stop. Saying. Salt Lake. WE GET IT. SHE IS NOT AUSTRAILIAN IN THIS ONE. MOVE ON.
I’m surprised at how many great lines there are in the book, which I’m guessing were mostly added for this version because I never noticed myself laughing before. Or in previous stage productions I was sahhhleeeeping. In the hands of Keke Palmer’s too-grown-up-for-this-school Marty, the entire role becomes killer. I love how she’s playing it as someone just sooo ooover high school and all these immature people. And Jan’s delivery of all her silly lines are hilarious. Kether Donahue is going all out with the silly and it’s paying off.
Patty and Sandy’s cheer-off was kind of a low point. Elle’s over-the-top hyperactive Patty is great is small doses (as she’s meant to be) but this was too much. And I don’t remember Sandy ever having to prove her cheerleading skills. It feels like a weird way to get Julianne to show off her dance ability, which is dumb because there are musical numbers to come, and you can dance in musical numbers.
But the end of that cheerleading segment flowing into the indoor pep rally was like an Oscar-worthy seamless cut. I didn’t even notice that the cameras changed but all of a sudden those musicians’ faces we were zoomed in on were inside the school instead of outside. Incredible! I hope this means director Tommy Kail gets more movie musicals and stuff doesn’t go automatically to Rob Marshall.
Dude that Scorpion gang leader looks just like the one from the movie! I forgot how annoying this soft ass gang rivalry is. Give me dancing Jets and Sharks who actually kill each other or give me nothing.
My favorite thing so far about Sandy is that she just made cheerleader, does a few (spectacular) high kicks (best high kick I’ve ever SEEN) at the pep rally, and then leaves after 3 seconds because her new BFF Frenchy pulls her aside. Like, Sandy, you have a job go back onstage ffs! Also try to make a different intonation in your voice. Or face. She is very sweet but that is all she is. I think that’s the character though. This show is weird.
Next, the awful scene where Danny and Sandy are reunited for like a second before Danny acts too cool for her (jerkface) was actually better than the movie. In the movie, Danny is just trying to look cool in front of his friends, and it’s hard to have sympathy for a douche like that or forgive him for not having the balls to act like a human in front of his actually dorky friends. But here, the history between Danny and Rizzo was made much clearer beforehand, so after he broke Sandy’s heart he whispered, “You happy Rizz?” like he did it for her, maybe to make amends for how shittily he treated her, maybe just so she would lay off him, but either way, it’s at least complicated and interesting.
One big change from the movie was the addition of the famous song “Freddy My Love” to give Marty a solo, and whoever made this decision should get a cookie. Keke Palmer was showstopping. Everything about this was perfection: She sounded amazing, looked amazing. The set made me gasp – the bedroom set opened up into a lit-up USO stage with a full audience of soldiers. How did this happen? And best of all, Keke was wearing not just a quick-change outfit by the master of all things clothing William Ivey Long (responsible for this magic omg just watch and be blown away. And this was only the Tony Awards version; the show’s was even more magical) but a DOUBLE quick change – her blue nightie unraveling into a red sequined gown which itself hid another blue nightie for the ending back in the bedroom. He is THE BEST. (Side note: two of the Pink Ladies – Keke Palmer and Carly Rae Jepsen – were replacements in that same Broadway production of “Cinderella” linked in the video. The original Ella that they replaced? Laura Osnes, whose Broadway debut was as Sandy in “Grease”! Wheeee theatre trivia!) Keke followed up her incredible performance with another hilarious line right afterwards: When Frenchy, explaining her decision to drop out of school, says “I’ve had enough of Emily Dickinson”, Marty shoots back with venom “She that sophomore?!” Bahaha.
Vanessa Hudgens is so good! She makes a great Rizzo. “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee” is such an awkward song, and it ends even more awkwardly (with the spoken “Some people are so touchy!” line before applause, a weird place to clap) but she did a great job with it.
I forgot about the whole live Bandstand thing with Vince Fontaine. Who would have their high school dance shown on live television? So weird! I like that the rep is played by original Doody, Barry Pearl. Cool! Yay we are interrupted by wholesome students Eugene and Patty, fighting over reserving a room. Patty wants it for a homemakers’ club (omg saddest thing ever) and Eugene for rocket club. Patty goes “Think of the children!” and Eugene goes “Think of the children ON ROCKETS!” HE IS THE GREATEST. I want a whole spinoff of Eugene and Patty but mostly Eugene. Noah is reinventing this usually thankless role into the best part of this and I want to hug him. Marty comes in and is hot and awesome and skeevy old man Doody is like YES PLEASE I’ll tell Vince to come here! skeevy old man.
Female shop teacher/mechanic! So cool! Omg it’s Jan Brady! I am shouting a lot. The workers in my hallway (2 months down and more to go cool guys!) are like what is going on. Anyway you know what the boys fixing their car means – “Greased Lightning” time! This was so well done, the dancing, the direction, bringing in girl dancers for an extended dance break, and above all the CAR quick change! Did William Ivey Long do that too? This number absolutely rocked. And I’m really enjoying these commercial break cuts by Mario Lopez. That is a sentence I never thought I would say, but it helps move things along and keep excitement up, somehow. He has finally found his calling, 10 second commercial break intros. I love seeing the cast rushing in golf carts to their next set, sharing water bottles and all amped up from doing such a banging job. This is so fun!
Another great move was having Doody serenade everyone on his guitar with “Those Magic Changes” while Danny does that totally boring part where he tries out for various sports. I get that it’s important to show how much Danny is willing to change for Sandy (something I never really noticed before because the focus is mostly on Sandy’s change into the leather catsuit) but it’s still a snooze usually. This Doody is like a sweeter baby version of Utkarsh Ambudkar, one of my favorite celebrities, so I’m enjoying this. I can’t believe we get yet another wonderful set, at their diner Frosty’s! I hope Mario Lopez goes and makes a joke about the Max! No I don’t! And original Frenchy Didi Conn is here as Vi the waitress! Woot! We’re treated to another epic Kether Donahue delivery, when Putzie asks her to the dance and she absolutely SCREAMED “yeah!!!” I cracked up out loud! As for our main characters, they’re really growing on me here and I’m totally buying them as Sandy and Danny. I never understood why Sandy forgave Danny so quickly but now I realize they are supposed to be high schoolers so yeah.
Vi leaves Frenchy all alone with her Easter egg hair and Carly Rae Jepsen starts singing an absolutely terrible song, and kind of terribly. How did she play Cinderella? It makes me sad that one of my favorite modern composing teams, Kitt & Yorkey, wrote this song. It’s so country music week on American Idol Season 5. Maybe it will grow on me with repeated listens but I don’t want to listen to it again. The only thing that can save this scene is a surprise appearance by the greatest male R&B group of all time. OH HERRO!!!!! BOYS II MEN IN THE HOUSE! Omg how did they agree to this?! Who thought of making Boys II Men the Teen Angel? GENIUSES, that’s who! They still sound so good and it’s hilarious to hear their signature slow jam beats and riffing on lyrics like “even Dear Abby’d say the same” and of course “no customer would go to you unless she was a hooker”. This is absolute gold and I hope this is nominated for every Emmy possible.
YAS it’s the dance scene next! Aaron is wearing Danny’s signature pink and black suit lolol this is gonna be great. The Jonas Brothers (or maybe just one brother?) are Johnny Casino and the Gamblers, which is an adorable casting move. Mario Lopez is now acting, as Vince Fontaine. His scene with Marty made me laugh very nervously. Let’s get him back to commercial intros. “That’s what it’s all about after all Preppy!” There was some expert directing and camerawork on display with the quick cuts to Didi Conn and the waitstaff watching their TINY TV back at Frosty’s. I can’t believe this is live. Whatever Jonas this is is NOT happy to be there. He looks like he’s too cool for all this which is HILARIOUS. Finally we get to see Julianne Hough show off doing what she does best, and that extraordinary convoluted flip turn she and Aaron did during the Hand Jive was one of the coolest moments of the whole thing. Erma. If anyone can find a video of that bit, I will give you a cookie. It was like the Pamchenko part of “Cutting Edge” but on land.
In other excellent decision news, “Hopelessly Devoted” makes SO much more sense after the dance scene instead of during the sleepover scene, when Sandy in the movie is all sad because the ink is washing off her letter that she is inexplicably playing with in a kiddie pool. Wtf. This is so much better.
Okay. Just witnessed the actual best scene of the whole thing – Ana Gasteyer’s post-dance morning announcement about the found bra and Blanche, hysterical national treasure Blanche, trying to say that it was actually hers. Oh my god Haneefah. MY GOD.
They have ANOTHER SET? The drive-in? HOW IS THIS LIVE? I’m blown away. Also there is no more awkward lead-in to a song than for “Stranded at the Drive-in” (or is it called “Sandy”?). Cracking up: “SANDY NO!...Stranded at the drive-iiin….” Dying. But finally Aaron gets to concentrate on singing, what he does best.
I don’t know how Vanessa got through any of this but her impressive “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” should be seriously lauded. At first I thought she was losing a little control as her voice was sounding small and tinny, but it actually worked well for the character. She was speaking the whole show in this faked older voice, and here in her big vulnerable moment we hear her sound like a child, which she’s supposed to be playing. So it worked really well.
Sandy has more pastel cardigans than I do.
Thunder Road time! The most random part of this show! Omg they are doing a stationary car chase that looks real because of wind and lighting this is awesome! Hahahahah it’s also really funny.
After the car chase, it’s finally time for the Carnival! This is going to be too much for me I can feel it. Kether yet again slays me with her delivery when Putzie brings her water ice – “I brought you your favorite!” “Red dye #2!!!!” Kether needs to be in everything.
The Carnival starts inside the gym, all decorated anew, and it looks decent. I accept it. Sandy comes out in her famous catsuit, Danny and Sandy do bits of the famous choreography (you can’t not do the famous bits, like the shimmying back and forth and the sideways glancy part, isn’t my dance lingo legit), and it’s all in all a swell time. BUT THEN THEY MOVE OUTSIDE. And the grounds have been transformed into an actual carnival with real rides and a ferris wheel and legit carnival stuff and it’s EXTRAORDINARY! I can’t believe I was content with the gym décor when a whole outdoor carnival awaited! Eersameersayzeersing! (That’s in carnie p.s. I am multi-lingual.) The energy in this finale was off the charts, and everyone seemed so joyous and proud of what they just accomplished. Rightly so!
This was an incredible production, and even its curtain call put every other TV musical event to shame: all the ensemble members got their own bows, just like on Broadway. Tears of joy! Enormous props to director extraordinaire Tommy Kail, fresh off his “Hamilton” success, for redefining the bounds of what live TV can be. All the other announced musical events like “Dirty Dancing” and “Rocky Horror” have a lot to live up to. There’s no way to go back to the single stage b.s. of yesteryear (last month) after seeing what’s possible here. Excellent job all around! Huzzah for musical theatre being brought to the undeserving masses!