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.
55 First Looks at New and Returning 2016 TV Shows (Exclusive Photos)
"Galavant" (ABC): ABC's quirky musical comedy is back for even more absurdity, with a meta first episode titled "A New Season aka Suck It Cancellation Bear."
“The Bachelor” (ABC): The 20th season of the popular dating reality show sees Ben Higgins, who was rejected by the latest “Bachelorette” Kaitlyn, as the newest single catch fending off and deciding between twenty-one new contestants.
"Teen Wolf" (MTV): Scott and Stiles will have to put aside their differences when MTV's hit series returns for the second half of Season 5. Stiles' dad, the Sheriff, is still in grave danger, and there's tons of new mysteries to solve. BFF drama can wait.
"The Shannara Chronicles" (MTV): The home of "Teen Wolf" dives deep into high fantasy with this adaptation of Terry Brooks' bestselling series of YA novels. Young heroes are tested as the dying Ellcrys tree inflects deadly demons upon the earth.
"Mike and Molly" (CBS): Melissa McCarthy returns for one final season of CBS' hit sitcom. The shortened 13-episode final season was announced by co-star Rondi Reeds, prompting McCarthy to share via Twitter that she too was "shocked and heartbroken" upon learning of the cancellation.
“Shades of Blue” (NBC): Jennifer Lopez makes a rare return to scripted television in this event series, also starring Ray Liotta, about a group of tough Brooklyn cops who are not afraid to sometimes step outside the confines of the law in order to protect their city.
“Angel From Hell” (CBS): The network's newest sitcom follows Jane Lynch as Amy, a colorful, brassy woman who insinuates herself into Allison's (Maggie Lawson) organized and seemingly perfect life, claiming to be her "guardian angel."
"Shameless" (Showtime): Frank discovers religion on Season 6 of Showtime's popular dark family dramedy following the Gallaghers. The new season finds the scrappy family struggling with change and the possibility of growing apart.
"Shadowhunters" (ABC Family): Cassandra Clare's bestselling YA novels get a makeover adaptation in this series about Clary Fray, who discovers she's destined to be a protector of the human race from demons that lurk around every corner.
"Second Chance" (Fox): Formerly known as "The Frankenstein Code," then "Lookinglass," Fox's newest science fiction drama is about a morally corrupt cop who's brought back to life decades later in a newer, younger, stronger body - and the consequences of that.
"DC's Legends of Tomorrow" (The CW): Heroes and villains of "Arrow" and "The Flash" team up to travel through time and take down an immortal villain, Vandal Savage, who just may conquer the planet should they fail in their mission.
"The 100" (The CW): The third season of the post-apocalyptic drama picks up three months after the catastrophic events of the Season 2 finale. Clarke is on the run and in danger, and Bellamy is trying to hold things together back at Camp Jaha. And a certain AI is still out there somewhere with a warhead that could destroy what's left of humanity.
“Baskets” (FX): Zach Galifianakis stars in this new comedy as Chip Baskets, who sets out to conquer his dream of becoming a professional clown. Flunking out of a prestigious Paris clown school, Chip finds himself working at a local rodeo in Bakersfield, CA instead.
"The X-Files" (Fox): Mulder and Scully are back to give it one last shot at solving the mystery of aliens and government cover-ups. But they'll have time for a side case or two, as most episodes of the revival event series will feature standalone stories.
"Lucifer" (Fox): The latest DC comic book adaptation sees the devil himself doing some good. Lucifer, bored with hell, moves to Los Angeles (where else) and teams up with an LAPD detective to solve crimes. "Gotham" crossover anyone?
"The Fosters" (ABC Family): The third season of the acclaimed blended family series sees everyone settling into a new dynamic now that Callie is permanently adopted, while medical problems, secrets and relationship drama threaten everyone's happiness.
“Suits” (USA): The second half of Season 5 returns to see the repurcussions of Mike behind bars, five seasons of lies and deception finally caught up to him. But don’t expect the mystery of who turned him in to be solved right away. The Patrick J. Adams-led drama has already been renewed for a sixth season.
“The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX): Ryan Murphy takes his anthology series prowess to dramatically retell the Trial of the Century, following the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and subsequent trial of former NFL star O.J. Simpson. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Simpson, with Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, David Schwimmer and more starring.
"11/22/63" (Hulu): A schoolteacher, Jake Epping, discovers he can travel back in time - and decides to try to stop the JFK assassination. The 10-hour adaptation of Stephen King novel stars James Franco.
(Premieres at midnight on President's Day, Feb. 15)
"Vikings" (History): The cable network bolstered its hit action series, adding four episodes to the fourth season of the Travis Fimmel-led show. The first 10 episodes air in February, with another 10 set for later in 2016.
“Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders” (CBS): The latest “Criminal Minds” series follows the International Repsonse Unit, the FBI division which is tasked with solving crimes and coming to the rescue of Americans who find themselves in danger while abroad.
“Of Kings and Prophets” (ABC): The Ray Winstone drama is described as an epic biblical saga of faith, ambition and betrayal as told through the eyes of the battle-weary King Saul, the resentful prophet Samuel and the resourceful young shepherd David — all on a collision course with destiny that will change the world.
"Underground" (WGN America): The 10-part miniseries is described as a pulse-pounding journey with revolutionaries of the Underground Railroad and tells the unflinching story of a group of courageous men and women who band together for the fight of their lives – for their families, their future and their freedom.
(Premieres Wednesday, Mar. 9)
"The Catch" (ABC): ABC’s latest Shondaland drama stars Mireille Enos as a fraud expert who finds herself being conned, by her own fiance, who’s been working with his real lover in stealing all her money. This one underwent a bit of a makeover with the recasting of two of its leads. Peter Krause and Sonya Walger replaced Damon Dayoub and Bethany Joy Lenz, respectively.
"Hap and Leonard" (Sundance TV): Based on the series of stories by Joe Lansdale, this anthology series follows the adventures of best friends Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. The two are chronically single, perpetually broke and guided by an old fashioned sense of honor and morality – but the similarities end there.
(Premieres in March on Sundance TV)
"Jackie Robinson" (PBS): The two-part Ken Burns documentary explores the life of the Brooklyn Dodgers legend who broke baseball's color barrier.
"Hunters" (Syfy): Based on Whitley Strieber’s best-selling novel "Alien Hunter," Syfy's latest comes from "Walking Dead's" Gale Ann Hurd and follows an FBI agent on the trail of a shadowy terrorist organization, who may or may not be from this world.
"12 Monkeys" (Syfy): Cole and Cassie do more time traveling and end up in the 1940s for at least some amount of time in Season 2 of Syfy's adaptation of the film of the same name - though the series is decidedly its own thing at this point.
"Containment" (The CW): "The Vampire Diaries" and "The Originals" showrunner Julie Plec adds another project to her plate with this drama set in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic viral outbreak.