‘Grease: Live’: Julianne Hough, Aaron Tveit, Vanessa Hudgens & More Hand-Jive Through The Fox Hit
It took two soundstages, 21 sets, hundreds of hours of rehearsals, 17,000 steps a day around the Paramount lot (those Fitbits must have been blowing up!), and battling an unexpected Southern California rainstorm to bring the gang of Rydell High to life in Grease: Live. If you were to forget any of this during the three-hour broadcast, emcee slash co-star Mario Lopez was there to remind you at every commercial break. That’s just how they do it on Fox: In your face until you cry uncle and admit that you’re impressed.
And I’ll admit it: The whole production was impressive. On a scale of recent televised live musicals, Grease soared past Carrie Underwood’s “acting” in The Sound Of Music and Allison Williams’ wig in Peter Pan (obviously), almost making it to The Wiz levels. The 2016 version stayed pretty true to the 1978 original, with a few new songs, male cheerleaders, female shop teachers and much needed diversity representation added into the mix. The show even benefited from a case of the Oprahs, happily shouting, “YOU get a solo, and YOU get a solo, and YOU get a solo,” to Julianne Hough, Aaron Tveit, Vanessa Hudgens, Keke Palmer, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jessie J, Joe Jonas, Jordan Fisher and even Boyz II Men.
Grease: Live starts off strong with Jessie J singing title song “Grease” as she dances through an umbrella-clad cast. Yes, there is some big time rain at show tie-in Los Angeles — the city that was without rain when the outdoor scenes were being planned. Despite the landslide conditions, the show goes on.
Once safely indoors, it’s revealed that Julianne Hough’s Sandy is from Utah, Hough’s actual home state, instead of Australia. Not having to endure a botched Australian accent makes everything better, including the “Summer Nights” performance. Sure, the light date-rape humor of lines like, “Tell me more, tell me more: Did she put up a fight?” are ever so slightly tone deaf, but, again: No bad Australian accents! This is also the first vocal disaster averted, as both Hough’s Sandy and Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko hit their final high notes flawlessly.
Remember Grease’s little twerp Patty Simcox (played here by Elle McLemore)? She’s back, and that goody-goody still has her ’50s slut-shaming ways, which makes it delightful when Hough schools her in cheerleading tryouts. Girl, please: Sandy’s topping that pyramid.
In between musical numbers, SNL alum Ana Gasteyer drops some jokes as Principal McGee, The Brady Bunch’s Eve Plumb randomly shows up as shop teacher Mrs. Murdoch, original cast members Barry Pearl (Doody) and Didi Conn (Frenchy) make cameos and — in the strangest appearance of all — Wendell Pierce makes motivational speeches as Coach Calhoun. Wendell Pierce of The Wire and Treme. National treasure Wendell Pierce. On Grease: Live. 15th billed. Moving on.
Back to things that make sense in Grease: Live: It’s sleepover time with Sandy and the Pink Ladies — including Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, Keke Palmer as Marty, and Cary Rae Jepsen as Frenchy! Scene-stealer Keke Palmer sings the new “Freddy My Love,” which includes an impressively quick costume change. Ignoring the context that this song is about a teenager writing letters to military men to get presents, it’s really fun! Should we ignore that context though? Eh, it’s three minutes: why turn this into an SVU plot? Yay sequins!
Not to be upstaged, Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo struts her stuff with “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” Hudgens dedicated her Grease performance to her father, who passed away from cancer the night before she took the stage. She does him — and Stockard Channing — proud, with her high energy, belty performance. It’s also the one time in the entire show that she can replace her hideous Rizzo wig with a slightly less hideous wig.
The only rough performance comes about an hour in when the guys sing “Greased Lightning,” led by Tveit and including Carlos PenaVega’s Kenickie and Jordan Fisher’s Doody. Not only do the guys struggle to stay on key while also dancing, there’s also a semi-strippery vibe to the female dancers that come in to whip their hair around and gyrate. It’s a long three minutes.
Fisher then gets his solo moment with new song “Those Magic Changes.” It’s a nice breather after the high octane “Greased Lightning,” and his 1950s look reads Warby Parker hipster. A star is born…or at least rescued from the Teen Beach movies.
Carly Rae Jepsen solo time! After a meta moment where new Frenchy talks to former Frenchy (now playing Vi the waitress), she breaks out into “All I Need Is An Angel.” First of all, that pink hair is totally working for her, and secondly, his song is begging for an “I Really Like You” mashup.
Don’t worry, Frenchy: your angels have arrived! Boyz II Men, who at this point are just Men, are the perfect Teen Angels to sing “Beauty School Dropout.” Their soulful harmonies are still on-point, and all this ’90s throwback is missing was Mariah Carey popping up out of a trap door.
Later, at the school dance, everyone is in their ’50s finest — everyone except Joe Jonas as Johnny Casino and his funk-pop band DNCE as…trying to get people to remember that DNCE is a thing. They competently perform “Rock ‘n Roll Is Here To Stay,” but do not bother with decade-appropriate looks. If Vanessa Hudgens has to spend three hours in that regrettable Rizzo wig, DNCE could have spent 10 minutes in wigs to cover up frosted tips, a slicked Mohawk and an ombre dye job. Just saying.
You can’t have Grease without a hand jive, which is a stellar ensemble dance number. Julianne Hough is all like, “Hand Jive? Amateur hour, suckers,” as she flips around the gymnasium. Baby V, Keke Palmer, and Carly Rae also jump and jive for Mario Lopez’s lecherous hand jive judge Vince Fontaine. It ends with a weird transition moment where Joe Jonas forgets he’s supposed to keep performing, and just prematurely stops. The joys of live TV, folks!
After being left at the dance for that rival high school siren, Cha Cha, Sandy goes all sad sack in “Hopelessly Devoted.” Even in her most basic chick moment of lamenting the lack of a man’s attention, the girl can sing!
Still struggling with her self-esteem, Sandy takes Danny back. He then crosses a lot of personal boundaries groping her at the drive-in, yet it’s Danny that’s feeling all sorry for himself singing, “Stranded At The Drive-In.” If the past two numbers have made anything clear, it’s that these two could benefit from couple’s therapy.
Plot reminder: Rizzo totally thinks she’s knocked up with Kenickie’s jiving baby at this point, which is pretty dark for high school. Not as dark as the Dirty Dancing illegal abortion plotline, but still. Hudgens gives her next solo, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” the appropriate amount of gravitas to reflect the situation. What would have added more gravitas is if the producers could have let her luxurious long hair shine instead of covering it with the deeply horrendous Rizzo wig.
Despite some minor updates, 2016 Grease doesn’t end with Sandy deciding to hit the books and go to med school. Looking like a Real Housewife of Rydell High, Sandy snags Danny’s attention in a skintight black ensemble. How Hough makes it through “You’re The One That I Want” in strappy red heels is a wonder, or really just years of dancing with them starts paying off.
The show nearly ends in disaster when a cast-filled golf cart hits a curb mid-sharp turn. Yes: The golf cart with national treasure Wendell Pierce. You can catch the moment in all of its glory at second :38. Luckily, everyone gets through the fender bender, and the cast ends “We Go Together” and the production with a flourish.
And three hours later, credits roll on Grease: Live. The show delivered a lot of fun, a surprising amount of talent and the safe return of Wendell Pierce for his next serious drama series opportunity. Stop while you’re ahead, Fox: This is as good as it’s going to get, and that Tyler Perry-hosted Passion Of The Christ musical looks like it’s going to be a goddamn disaster.
Did you tune in to Grease: Live? Let us know your thoughts on it below!