This production is certainly far from the disaster that the first two live TV musicals in this vein were, but it kind of misses the point of the original material. For the record, while it bills itself as a live production of the Grease stage musical, it very obviously isn’t. This is nothing more than a studio recreation of the famous film version, with most of the plot and character changes made for that version, as well as the four famous songs added for the film version (although to be fair, stage productions generally use those songs too if they can get the rights).
The two best songs from the stage score that didn’t make it into the first movie are added here, and we get a very brief taste of the original opening number, “Alma Mater”, but otherwise the tunestack is indistinguishable from the movie. The cast is pretty uneven, with a lot of polish throughout but mixed returns on actual content. Aaron Tveit as Danny is so clean-cut and whitebread from the beginning that there’s no room for him to develop, and this also makes him laughably unconvincing as the tough-guy delinquent he’s supposed to be. I don’t know what was wrong with Tveit here…he managed to play ‘edgy’ brilliantly in Next To Normal, so I can’t imagine why he comes off so bland here.
Julliane Hough is easily the highlight of the cast…not only is she twenty times the actor Olivia Newton-John will ever be, she’s also a more interesting singer than Newton-John. In fact, her performance is about the only aspect of the show that actually improves on the movie. Vanessa Hudgens is entirely too sophomoric for Rizzo—she has the bitchy Mean Girls ringleader persona down, but that’s not who Rizzo is supposed to be, and her handling of the comedy scenes makes her sound more like a middle-schooler than the experienced, jaded character she’s supposedly playing. I will say, though, that she does better in the second half when she has some real drama to play, which makes a certain amount of sense given what was going on in her life at the time.
Carly Rae Jepsen is a touching, well-sung Frenchie, and the new song they added for her is quite good…I can actually see it becoming a permanent part of the score and being retained for future productions…but its earnest wistfulness does make for a bit of an awkward lead-in to the intentionally ridiculous “Beauty School Dropout”. That said, Boyz II Men are pretty much the closest thing to Frankie Avalon we have in our current culture, so bringing them on to sing the number was an inspired choice. Pop singer Jessie J was also brought on to sing the title-song, but while I’m generally an admirer of her work, without Franki Valli’s vocals to provide that Fifties-Eighties fusion feel, the song just doesn’t sound right.
Overall, though, a few miscastings aside, this production has two overarching problems. The first is that they constantly remind you that this is a live show, putting the studio audience on camera entirely too often and blowing up the bigger numbers with huge throngs of backup singers and dancers who appear out of nowhere in garish costumes that don’t remotely match what the actual characters are wearing. In the finale, the characters even drive right off the studio lot like in Blazing Saddles. The effect of this, at least in this kind of show, is to distance us from the action and prevent us from getting emotionally invested. There’s a reason you don’t do these kinds of things in a film musical; even doing them in stage musicals is tricky.
The other problem is that the production as a whole is far too innocent. Remember, Grease started out as a bitterly raucous spoof of the 1950s, and the film version merely played those elements more subtly, creating a dark subversion of the Frankie-and-Annette film formula while pretending to play it straight. Well, this version does play it straight, and without that dark undertone nearly all of the show’s actual content is lost. This isn’t Grease in any real sense, just a more sophisticated, more adult version of High School Musical. They even use the sanitized ending that was added to the latest revival, but frankly, coming after a production that dropped nearly all of the darker subtext, the original ending would have just come across as the blatantly false attempt at a happy ending it pretends to be on the surface, and no-one watching for the first time would have realized its disturbing implications were intentional. This production was entertaining enough, and it certainly serves as an impressive showcase for the show’s fantastic score, but it isn’t really the same show as the Broadway or film versions, and that comes as something of a disappointment for the show’s fans.