Grease Live (TV)

Grease Live (TV), 5/2/16 (Mon)

Fox’s entry into the live musical genre pioneered by NBC. Grease seemed a natural choice as an ever-potent title about high-school life in the 1950s, using a retooled version incorporating songs from the super-successful movie. The broadcast had received strong reviews and ratings, and while I’m not a big fan of the show itself, I had been interested in seeing what they did with it.

Director Thomas Kail, the Hamilton wunderkind, took an innovative approach that paid off in spades. He made little attempt to hide the show’s artificiality, incorporating an audience into many scenes as extras as well as viewers (including applause) and showing the cast at one point moving in go-carts to the next set. The show marked out its territory at the very beginning as a famous pop singer sprung out and sang the title song – a completely unrelated number written for the movie to be sung over the credits – while running breathlessly (literally, as she seemed to run out of breath) past various sets, actors and audiences in some impressively dynamic camerawork. The intricately timed scene transitions kept the energy level high throughout. Some scenes were performed outside, which put them dangerously at the mercy of the weather – in fact, it seems to have been raining early on – but that turned out to be a good gamble when the skies cooperated in an exhilarating finale. Kail seemed to have an endless bag of tricks, including that buoyant opening, a smoke-filled car race sequence, an amazing scene that took a woman seamlessly from singing at a pajama party to a concert stage, and overhead shots that followed the actors through crowds and multiple sets. There were small sound and camera mishaps along the way, but that only added to the sensation of a performance taking place before our eyes. The director managed to create a new hybrid of film and live, relegating NBC’s disheartening proscenium version of The Wiz late last year to the museum. The material was lucky to have him.

Kail took a smart light-hearted approach acting-wise, and the performers jumped in gleefully. The best was easily Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, who was superb in the show’s only real dramatic moment in “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”. (She had apparently lost her father just hours earlier, but that was not evident in her performance here.) Others overacted appropriately in largely tongue-in-cheek style. The costumes and choreography were fun as well, though apparently taken in good part from the movie (which I somehow haven’t seen).

While Grease is still no great shakes as a musical, there’s no denying its nostalgic appeal, and the creators seem to have left some of its less-PC elements intact, a very good move. The director has pioneered a new path for these live musicals, and I’m eager to see how this is incorporated into future musicals, including NBC’s Hairspray this fall. Definitely looking forward to the next Fox show, whatever it is.

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