‘Grease: Live’ Review: Fox Musical Was Smooth as Greased Lightning

Producers delivered on an ambitious game plan, even if some of the casting didn’t measure up to the original

With live events being all the rage on broadcast television these days, it was only a matter of time before someone attempted to top NBC’s one-stage theatrical productions (“Peter Pan,” “The Sound of Music”). And so on Sunday night, weeks after NBC finally figured out that the third time’s a charm with “The Wiz Live,” Fox took over the reins with “Grease: Live,” two sound stages and an outdoor set at the mercy of El Nino.

From the opening, it was clear the game had indeed been changed from the live format audiences are used to. That anything-can-happen excitement was apparent during the opening sequence as Jessie J paraded through the Warner Bros. lots — inside and out — singing the theme song. In one little number she proved a rainstorm wasn’t going to quell the production values or overall vibe.

Weirdly though, that same excitement fizzled slightly from there thanks to pretty seamless camerawork and plenty of close-ups during the subsequent acts, which almost took away the magic and excitement that the other live productions have had in spades. Adding in Mario Lopez at intermittent commercial breaks to treat the thing like a sporting event didn’t help either, and probably would have been better done had he appeared in his Vince Fontaine character instead.

In terms of the aforementioned camera angles and flawless execution, it was clear Fox was going for a different vibe than NBC. With the latter’s productions, audiences are supposed to feel as though they are sitting in on live theater. Fox, in typical fashion, wanted to test the limits and show an audience what they could see if they were transported to several stages throughout the course of a production, a clever trick to make set changes appear more seamless. With so many players running around from stage to stage (with the main players sometimes making costume changes on a golf cart), it’s amazing that it was as seamless as it was. If there were any major muck ups, they remained offstage, keeping audiences in the moment. That’s a tall order indeed, especially when it involves drag racing scenes, live dance numbers and cheerleading pyramids.

Of course, minor things did go wrong over the three-hour event. Mic issues made it hard to hear the actors at times, while there were a few background dancers who found their way into inopportune shots during others. Meanwhile, the transitions from commercials back to production were sometimes jarring and awkward without a bumper — if you weren’t playing close attention it was easy to miss that the show was even back on.

As Danny, Aaron Tveit did a fine job and showcased some terrific choreography. But whether it was due to delivery, a miscast or just poor mic issues, he tended to fall into the background during the pivotal musical numbers, including the always-anticipated “Greased Lightning” scene. Julianna Hough’s Sandy was better thanks to her definitive moves (cheerleading, anyone?) and rather bang-on casting.

Vanessa Hudgens, who was under a bright spotlight following the news that her father had died Saturday night, was obviously committed to the character and had strong moments, but had a lot to live up to after Stockard Channing so famously performed the role in the movie. Hudgens fell flat in comparison.

In fact, some of the night’s highlights involved the additional songs not featured in the film, as they served to truly set the show apart. “Freddy My Love” and “Magic Changes” were great examples of how throwaway moments were transformed into magical ones. (In fact, any scene involving Keke Palmer as Marty was a true highlight). Carly Rae Jepsen’s solo as Frenchy in particular was breathtaking (when we could hear it), and was capped off nicely with a Boyz II Men rendition of “Beauty School Dropout.”

In terms of updates and diversity, there was an overall attempt to make the entire production more modern within the casting itself, including Wendell Pierce as Coach Calhoun and Haneefah Wood as Blanche. It would have been progressive back in 1959, but felt underwhelming in 2016 — especially following “The Wiz Live.” Sadly, the dialogue remained mostly the same as the original, and a millennial audience that inevitably missed several of the references.

As far as overall theatrical-to-TV events go though, “Grease Live” was a big old win in every possible column. The production managed to capture the overall cheesy tone present in the original while moving through the many numbers with lightning speed. The three hours flew by quicker than expected at the outset thanks to giggle-worthy moments and fun numbers, with things really picking up in terms of overall entertainment and production value at the two-hour mark.

The choreography, particularly during the “Born to Hand Jive” take was flawless, and a great chance to utilize Hough’s extensive dance expertise. Meanwhile, her follow-up solo, “Hopelessly Devoted To You” showcased her singing talent to be pretty equal to her dance moves, making her a true triple threat. The added narrative of her character’s strict parents (not being able to be on-camera for the dance, being scared to be her true self) helped her final transformation ring truer that former iterations, making the “changing for a boy” pill a little easier to swallow.

When that infamous “You’re the One that I Want” scene finally did come around, everyone truly brought their A games, ending the experiment on the highest note possible. By the time the cast drove around the Warner Bros. lot in the golf carts singing “We Go Together,” it was hard not to be hooked — especially when it all culminated in a massive outdoors carnival scene that really showcased the amazing scope of this thing. It was almost as though you were sad to see it actually end.

NBC take note: with more productions like this, one stage may no longer cut it.