‘Grease: Live’ cracks the code for the perfect TV musical

Fox’s musical extravaganza Sunday set a new standard for TV adaptations.

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I’ll be the first to say it: I hate “Grease.”

Sure, it’s an American classic, but “Grease” just never struck me as something special. The music has always been irresistibly catchy, but the plot seemed thin, the characters seemed cliché, and I could never quite wrap my head around the whole flying car thing.

So it was with reluctance that I turned on the TV Sunday night at 6 p.m. to watch Fox’s production of “Grease: Live.” But after three hours of enthralling musical numbers, stunning camera work and breathtaking dance moves, I was sold.

“Grease: Live” seamlessly fused the magic of an extravagant Hollywood film with the unpredictable nature of a live audience to create one spectacular event that had 12.2 million viewers, including me, hooked.

NBC has attempted to bring live musicals to TV several times with little to no success. “The Sound of Music Live!” in 2013 failed to impress audiences, even with vocal powerhouse and country star Carrie Underwood at the helm, and 2014’s “Peter Pan Live!’ was panned by critics and viewers on Twitter alike. Finally, NBC hit a high note with “The Wiz Live!” last December, but their production was still missing something.

There is something special about seeing live theater that can’t easily be converted to the screen. In every good performance, there is at least one moment, however brief, where an actor connects with audience members. It’s this connection that makes seeing a live show so unique — for just a moment, the audience isn’t in a theater anymore. They’re in the streets of poverty-stricken France on the brink of revolution, or a bustling corner in Washington Heights or the vibrant halls of Rydell High School.

NBC has tried and tried again to transfer this magic to network television, but they can’t quite get it right. Live, on-stage performances will always trump watching a musical on-screen. That is simply a standard that cannot be topped.

Luckily, Fox figured out this barrier and found a way around the challenge. With “Grease: Live,” Fox wasn’t competing with any theatrical productions — they created a whole new model to produce the stage show not as a TV adaptation, but as a full-blown cinematic extravaganza.

“Grease: Live” was filmed on 21 different sets on two soundstages. During commercial breaks, the cast could often be seen sprinting from their last set to the nearest open golf cart, where they would ride to the next set while somehow simultaneously changing into their next costume. And just as the finale “We Go Together” began, the cast spent the first few bars of the song driving to the elaborate final outdoor set, complete with a ferris wheel and several gigantic carnival rides. For a minute, Danny Zuko (played by Aaron Tveit) had the lives of half the cast in his hands, and I know I’m not the only one who jumped a foot in the air in terror when the second golf cart with more cast members briefly hit the curb.

Before the ending spectacle, however, there were plenty of other breathtaking showstoppers. The classic “Greased Lightnin’” gave an already-historic number a makeover with flashy costumes and mind-boggling choreography (but seriously, HOW DID THEY CHANGE THE CAR SO FAST?). Doody, played by the adorable Jordan Fisher, seduced millions simultaneously with his gorgeous ballad “Those Magic Changes” (those harmonies? If you find my heart, let me know, because it definitely flew out of my chest). And of course “You’re The One That I Want” is always a memorable crowd-pleaser (did I mention Tveit’s biceps yet? This seems like a good place to mention Tveit’s biceps).

The production generated plenty of hype long before Sunday. With a creative team including the likes of director Tommy Kail (Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights” and Broadway hit “Hamilton”) overseeing stage direction, director Alex Rudzinski (“Dancing with the Stars”) overseeing the live broadcast, and costume designer William Ivey Long (Tony Award winner and costume designer of over 70 Broadway shows) creating stunning costumes for the whole cast, it would have been difficult for “Grease: Live” to fail.

In addition to Tveit and Fisher, the cast was chock-full of other powerhouses like Julianne Hough as Sandy, Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, Keke Palmer as Marty, Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy and Carlos PenaVega as Kenickie.

Hudgens, who performed the show just hours after announcing on Twitter that her father had died Saturday, knocked her songs out of the park, especially considering the circumstances. Her voice showed just how much she has grown since her “High School Musical” days ten years ago, but part of me couldn’t shake that good-girl image she created back then. Nonetheless, Hudgens was commended for her bravery and commitment to the show throughout the performance.

Hough definitely stood out during the production. It’s no secret that the girl can dance (she has two “Dancing with the Stars” championships under her belt, after all), but Hough is certainly one to watch for her singing skills as well: “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was incredibly impressive, especially with the pressure of live viewers. Acting-wise, Sandy is a relatively static and straightforward role, which Hough easily nailed.

Tveit is just 32, but he has already cemented himself as a modern Broadway icon. His work in “Catch Me If You Can” and “Next to Normal” on Broadway put his star on the map, and he made viewers everywhere swoon over his portrayal of Enjolras in the 2012 “Les Miserables” film adaptation. Tveit was the perfect Danny Zuko, and he made sure to show off his angelic voice and mesmerizing dance moves to prove it (plus the aforementioned flawless biceps).

We all remember Palmer from her “True Jackson, VP” days on Nickelodeon. Now, she is all grown up and breaking hearts as Marty. Palmer made headlines in 2014 when she was cast as the first African-American Cinderella on Broadway, and she continued to wow audiences with her stand-out role in “Grease: Live.” Her time as “Cinderella” definitely prepared her for her big number “Freddy My Love” — Palmer had two costume quick changes within this one song when she had to transform her nightgown at the Pink Ladies’ sleepover to a stunning red evening gown and back again. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Long designed the magically dynamic costumes for both the revival of “Cinderella” on Broadway and “Grease: Live.”

Not being a seasoned actor, Jepsen definitely surprised me. She truly made the role of Frenchy her own, which I imagine would be pretty difficult when original Frenchy Didi Conn is literally watching over her shoulder in her cameo role as waitress Vi. However, Frenchy’s original song written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorker was disappointing. The song acted as a lead-in to the classic “Beauty School Dropout,” which easily overshadowed the new addition. The song stuck out because of its differences in style from the rest of the score, and it didn’t particularly add anything of substance to the musical that wasn’t there before.

Luckily, “Beauty School Dropout” definitely put the show back on track with Boyz II Men playing Teen Angel. Other special guests included Jessie J, who absolutely slayed the opening number “Grease (Is The Word),” Mario Lopez as Vince Fontaine, Ana Gasteyer of “Saturday Night Live” fame as Principal McGee and Joe Jonas’ new band DNCE as Johnny Casino and the Gamblers. DNCE’s hit single “Cake by the Ocean” even made an appearance in the show as a smooth, slowed down 50s ballad.

Fox has definitely raised the bar for future live network musical productions. And with NBC’s live “Hairspray” adaptation coming up in December — another mid-century upbeat musical with the classic high-school-kids-coming-of-age theme, nonetheless — NBC certainly has some work to do. We can only hope that NBC will take a page out of Fox’s book and up the ante once again.

MOVE gives “Grease: Live” four-and-a-half out of five stars.

Edited by Katherine Rosso — krosso@themaneater.com

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