Review: Fox shows it can do musicals with ambitious Grease: Live

With this hectic, ambitious and hormonal Grease, Fox proved it could up the ante in the new mini-industry of musicals on TV, an industry so far controlled by NBC, with it’s The Sound of Music Live! Peter Pan Live! and The Wiz Live productions.

From left: Carly Rae Jepsen, Julianne Hough, Vanessa Hudgens, Kether Donohue and Keke Palmer during a rehearsal for Grease: Live. Kevin Estrada / FOX via AP
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The chills were indeed multiplyin' during the Grease: Live telecast on Sunday, a show that survived early rain, some tricky costume changes, a mortifying loss of audio and a cast member's heartbreak.

With this hectic, ambitious and hormonal Grease, Fox proved it could up the ante in the new mini-industry of musicals on TV, an industry so far controlled by NBC, with it's The Sound of Music Live! Peter Pan Live! and The Wiz Live.

Fox intriguingly didn't hide what it was doing. Jessie J opened the show singing Grease while cameras followed her touring the extensive backstage. There were clusters of real people in the audience in some scenes. And Mario Lopez played a sort of running anchor, showing the cast breaking character as they rushed about after their scenes ended and leapt into golf carts to go to the next. We could see the sausage being made, whereas NBC had always tried to hide it.

The risks became clear when a moment — less than a minute — of the audio during Born to Hand Jive dropped out. But that was the only big glitch during a three-hour show partially performed outdoors that even shrugged off rain showers.

Like its recent predecessors, Fox leaned on a lot of Broadway DNA during its visit to Rydell High. Grease: Live was assuredly directed by Thomas Kail (Hamilton), with music supervision by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), sets by David Korins (Hamilton) and costume design by William Ivey Long (Cabaret), who must have maxed out his budget on leather jackets.

The show was based on the original 1971 musical Grease, by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, with some songs absorbed by the 1978 film version starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. Broadway writers Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins adapted it for live TV, salting in sly jokes about the era and the actors.

Grease: Live was captured by 44 cameras and performed on two massive Warner Bros. soundstages over 20 acres in Burbank, California. It took advantage of its size, with lots of big sets, full-sized cars and more complex camera angles than its predecessors. And unlike The Wiz, it represented a turn away from high-tech tricks and back to basic stage fundamentals.

Dancing With the Stars veteran Julianne Hough was a nifty Sandy, holding her own in the singing and acting department while clearly nailing the cheerleading demands and even doing well with the tricky Hopelessly Devoted to You.

A charming and generously coiffed Aaron Tveit as Danny Zuko made a great case to America to be listed among its top leading men, though he was sometimes prone to making Travolta faces. The broadcast also will be a resume booster for Jordan Fisher, a suave and beautifully voiced Doody.

Carly Rae Jepsen was an assured Frenchie, even if the new song she was given, All I Need Is an Angel, seemed out of place and bland. KeKe Palmer was sultry as the diva Marty. But real credit goes to Vanessa Hudgens, who was an electric, complex Rizzo. The actress lost her father to cancer on the eve of the broadcast and dedicated it to his memory.

Great touches included Palmer, in a dream sequence, going from a bedroom to a full-scale USO concert while signing Freddy, My Love in a slinky red gown, Boys II Men stepping in for Frankie Avalon to deliver a soulful Beauty School Dropout and a high-energy, correctly testosterone-heavy Greased Lightnin'. A racially integrated cast made 1959 look that much better, even if the original material didn't do much for women's liberation.

Some missed opportunities included too much of the choreography and character mannerisms cribbed from the film. The drag race at the end was underwhelming, as neither car really moved. And most of the extras looked too old even for graduate school, much less high school.

Fox made a nice nod to the Grease legacy by asking Didi Conn, who played Frenchy in the film, and Barry Pearl, who was Doody, to appear in small roles. (Travolta made his own cameo in an ad for the upcoming O J Simpson series). But Fox spoiled some of that goodwill with the heavy product placement of Coke — a sponsor. Maybe a better sponsor would have been whoever made the golf carts, usually not the hip, cool transportation option. Here they were positively greased lightnin'.