I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by this production. And by pleasantly surprised, I mean shocked. I had no expectations going into this. Well, I did– I expected it to be bad. But it wasn’t, much to my surprise.
I won't discuss the merits of Grease as it stands as a musical here, although in reading up on it, the original ORIGINAL productions were more Outsiders and less Happy Days. It was actually created in response to Hair, as a musical look at the counter-culture of the 50s. Unfortunately through many iterations, not least of all the 1978 movie starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, it's been cleaned up substantially since then. I would be very interested to see a production of the script in its original form. This is not that production, but more on that later.
Despite initial reservations, it actually was pretty well cast:
I solidly enjoyed Kether Donahue as Jan. She’s wayyy too old for the part, but she’s babyfaced enough that it works. (Although poor kid, the hair & makeup person must have spent too much time on new!Sandy for the last act and dropped the ball on her pigtails, which totally dropped out.) Keke Palmer was severely overacting as Marty, but that’s sort of in character, so I couldn't hate it too much. Plus, points for the return of “Freddy My Love”, the best of the numbers from the musical that didn’t make it into the 1978 movie.
Carly Rae Jeppsen as Frenchy was inoffensive, but not exciting, and unfortunately her new number was straight terrible AND out of place, both in the plot and in the time period. (Thankfully, then Boyz II Men showed up collectively as the Teen Angel and saved not only Frenchy’s future, but the whole show as well. Would have been worth the price of admission for their “Beauty School Dropout” alone. BETTER THAN FRANKIE AVALON.) And while she was given much to do in the first half of the show, apparently after Frenchy went back to high school, she basically dropped off the face of the planet. Until Grease 2, that is.
Aaron Tveit as Danny is the oldest one here, and that one showed. But I guess that was never a condition of being in this show (Stockard Channing, anyone?) He was doing a middling-okay job to start out with (and I’m a sucker for a pretty face), but Tveit seemed to lose his energy/drive/something about halfway through the hand jive & it never returned. (I’m also not entirely sure he pulled off the John Travolta pink socks look.) He’s just too straight to play Danny. (Straight as in "the straight man", not as in straight vs gay, if I needed to explain that.) I don’t need the Travolta “SANdee!” but Tveit could definitely use more panache. And without Travolta’s alternating falsetto and bass(? Let’s pretend I know music terms!), “Sandy” the number is boring and weird. He just kinda strikes me as the un-fun T-Bird here. It’s a pretty sad production of Grease, when the guys you want to hang out with are Sonny, Doody, and Putzie. David Del Rio, who plays Putzie, gets a bit lost in the crowd, aside from some cute moments with Jan, but Sonny and, particularly, Doody are standouts. Jordan Fisher is Doody (who, if you’re me and no one else, you may remember as the token black guy in the Teen Beach movies), and he kills “Those Magic Changes”, a song I previously could have cared less about. (Between this & “Beauty School Dropout”, that’s really what this production has been the best for.) And Sonny is played by Andrew Call who, as far as I can tell from IMDb, seems to be the most theatre actor of the bunch up until now, but he's a cute & funny addition to the cast. I'll be looking out for this kid in the future.
I don’t have any problems with Julianne Hough as Sandy. She's one of those actresses that the moment she changes her hair, I find her completely unrecognizable, but she’s the most obvious casting they’ve done here. I am going to need to Olivia Newton-John their version of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” out of my brain though. I’ll admit, I have a secret love for that song, and the pling-plang instrumental they did ruins what’s a decent vocal performance from Hough.
Carlos PenaVega as Kenickie is the biggest miscasting of the show. I'll admit that, like The Wiz, my Grease knowledge really mostly stems from the movie (although in this case, I have seen theatre productions before). But Jeff Conaway's Kenickie is always going to be my standard. Kenickie, to me, was always the "bad boy" of the group. He was the one that really gave the T-Birds any street cred at all. And he hooks up with the coolest, baddest chick in school. PenaVega didn't hold that standard up at all. All I could think watching is, this guy is way more of a Putzie or a Doody than he is a Kenickie. And without a real Kenickie, plus THE NICEST DANNY YOU'VE EVER SEEN (more on that later), this group of T-Birds comes off more like the T-Birds of Grease 2.
Saving the best for last, Vanessa Hudgens was acting her face off as Rizzo. When I read that her dad died the day before this production, I was floored. I can’t even imagine, but she doesn't crack the whole show. (There was even a whole article I read devoted to how she performed that show AND THEN SANG A SONG ABOUT PUTTING ON A BRAVE FACE, with an absolutely solid rendition of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do".) Besides that though, she’s acting enough to pull PenaVega’s dead weight and convince me that there's anything going on between Rizzo & Kenickie at all. And damn, if Baby V's killer gams don't outshine makeover!Sandy's sprayed on pants in the final scene.
The adult cast had a number of standouts as well. Ana Gasteyer and Hannefah Wood are inspired as Principal McGhee and Blanche. And Eve Plumb does a complete 180 from Jan Brady as we all know her, and kills it as Mrs. Murdock. And we love Didi Conn always, so casting her as Vi is perfect.
I mentioned before that over the years, this show has been cleaned up in many ways, and they, of course, did so even more, which is unsurprising for something airing on network television at 7pm on a Sunday. I have to say, however, FOX's standards for making the show more “family-friendly” are pretty weird. Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah, dialogue changes. You can’t say “pussy wagon” on TV? Fair point. But what was left in vs what they took out is decidedly odd, at best. They can spike the punch bowl & have Blanche’s bra show up, but butts on TV? No mooning for you! Booze in the car is ok, but no cigarettes!! However, what really weirded me out were some of the strange cleaned-up plot changes:
Rizzo & Kenickie don’t/do have sex? I actually don’t know. There’s that weird scene with them in the car, but then the next day Kenickie says the Scorpions hitting his car made him “too mad to perform.” So riddle me this, Batman: how the hell did Rizzo get pregnant if she & Kenickie didn’t seal the deal? What was the point of that scene anyway? You know what’s REALLY family-friendly? A couple of teenagers about to bang in a car!
Sandy’s camera-shy! She runs off the dance floor, so now Danny ditching her for Cha-Cha isn’t a DICK move, it’s just a dick move. (By the way, also, I'm not convinced at all that Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer's Cha-Cha was the best dancer. Seemed like Danny won for his dancing with Sandy and Cha-Cha just snuck in as a hanger-on.)
- Marty realizes Mario Lopez– I mean, Vince Fontaine is old and creepy. Definitely NOT what happened in the movie, not until she at least hooked up with him, if I'm remembering correctly. However, this production turns Vince Fontaine into a PG Rex Manning, and Marty books it before anything can happen.
Kenickie hits his head and can’t drive at Thunder Road on purpose. Kenick panics that he’s going to die right before he’s going to be a father, so Danny hits him with the car door on purpose, and they collectively fake the extent of his injury so he can’t drive. Danny’s apparently a much nicer guy in this production. Everything’s a lot nicer. Ick.
As for the lows: “You know what this show needs? More Patty Simcox!” said no one ever. I quickly began to understand why this show was three hours long when Patty Simcox (Elle McLemore) & Eugene (Noah Robbins) started getting their own side plots. However, with all the extra scenes thrown in, it was odd to me that it seemed like the Sandy/Danny interactions were cut weirdly short. They were often just abrupt and unconvincing. (Why does Sandy forgive him for being a jerk? Cause he runs? I DON'T UNDERSTAND.)
Joe Jonas shows up to play the school dance, and not only could they not get a better Jonas brother, but they keep filming the back of his head. And his band could not possibly look more out of place for the time period. Oh sure, pink ombre hair and a mohawk?
Alternately, the show started out with Jessie J singing "Grease Is the Word", and while she doesn't fit the period entirely, she doesn't have to, and it totally works. As she strolls & boogies through the backstage (in a bit FOX has done successfully before in their So You Think You Can Dance openers), it instantly gives you a sense of the difference between this and NBC's live musical outings. Not only did FOX shell out the money for the production value and movie/TV-style sets, but they also include a live audience on site. It's the best of both worlds, and equally what's missing from NBC's productions. I respect NBC for wanting to bring theatre to an audience that could be missing out or unaware of it, but just filming a show and throwing it on TV doesn't work as well as it could. Having dynamic sets really makes a huge difference. And you need to have that live audience portion. Without it, big parts of the show come off as flat as the backdrop.