The bar for staging live musicals on television has now been set sky-high thanks to Fox’s technically spectacular production of “Grease: Live” Sunday night.
The show wasn’t perfect, but it was great fun with touches of film nostalgia and musical theater earnestness. There were quibbles to be had with some of the casting — um, Mario Lopez? — some flat punch lines, one major sound glitch, a bizarrely haphazard approach to sanitizing the racier bits, and uneven pacing and tone. But, the frothy ’50s-set high school musical was so expertly executed and choreographed visually and exuberantly performed by most of the actors that it more than compensated for its flaws. And, as it gunned into the final stretch of the three-hour telecast, it was running as smoothly as “Greased Lightnin’. ”
Credit goes to the creative team including director Thomas Kail, currently drawing raves for his work on Broadway smash “Hamilton,” choreographer Zach Woodlee (“Glee”), and live broadcast director Alex Rudzinski (“Dancing With the Stars”). While the trio took far more cues from the popular 1978 film version starring Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta — right down to blocking and costumes in some cases — than the stage production on which it was based, they pulled off one stunning full ensemble dance number after another with impressive, immersive elan across several lots, including one outside, at Warner Bros. studio.
From the “Hand Jive” dance-off in the gym to the full-blown carnival finale of “We Go Together,” the camerawork was stunning and those numbers also radiated the most energy from the cast and drew big cheers from the on-set live audience whose presence was felt to varying degrees throughout the night.
As the destined-to-be-together sweethearts Sandy and Danny, “Dancing With Stars” pro/judge Julianne Hough and Broadway veteran Aaron Tveit, were competing with indelible movie memories for some viewers but each had moments to shine, particularly Hough, both vocally and, unsurprisingly, on the dance floor.
Most of the Pink Ladies also got a turn in the spotlight with Keke Palmer as Marty performing a slinky and sassy “Freddy My Love” in a terrific quick change interlude. Pop star Carly Rae Jepsen was winning in her performance as the beauty school dropout Frenchy — here serenaded by Boyz II Men — but was given a new number that added little but extra length to the running time. Vanessa Hudgens, having lost her father one day before the telecast, was terrific as the brassy, shade-throwing Rizzo and slayed her ruminative ballad “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Although she didn’t get her own number Kether Donahue (“You’re the Worst”) was the night’s biggest scene-stealer as quirky, Twinkie-loving Jan.
The producers even added the nice touch of a curtain call for the cast. For whichever TV musical is up next, “Grease” is the word to beat.
Starring Julianne Hough, Vanessa Hudgens, Carly Rae Jepsen, Aaron Tveit.
On Fox. Aired Sunday.