The Saturday List: Go GREASE(d) Lightnin’ / No GREASE(d) Lightnin’

The cast of GREASE: LIVE

The cast of GREASE: LIVE

It may be almost a week since the much-hyped Grease: Live hit the small screen, but that’s given the dust (and the fankids) a little time to settle. This week’s Saturday List takes a looks at some of the strengths and weaknesses that have revealed themselves since last Sunday. For those of you who need reminding, Grease: Live was a live television event written by Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins based on both the stage musical, Grease, and its film adaptation, directed by Thomas Kail and Alex Rudzinski for Fox. Without any further ado, let’s take a look at the five best and five worst things about Grease Live!

Go GREASE(d) Lightnin’

Let’s face it: Sandy is a relatively thankless, yet deceptively difficult, role. Play it too sweet, and everyone’s going to hate you. Too tough, and you lose the arc of the character. I think it’s pretty safe to say that Julianne Hough finds her way in the role, navigating through thin backstory infested waters too. In an adaptation that leans heavily on the film, it’s almost certainly a blessing that Hough didn’t have to adopt Olivia Newton-John’s Australian accent, even she did have to done close reproductions of some of the costumes. Of the leads, Hough best manages not only to make the role her own, but to make her own take on Sandy work.

A huge part of the teenage experience is fantasy. It’s why “Greased Lightnin'” never fails to please: besides the rhythm of the song, the audience is really rooting for those boys because so many of us drove a beat-up old car that we wished was something better. And it’s just one reason that “Freddy My Love” works so well in Grease: Live. It’s one of the few moments in which this adaptation finds its own voice. Imagine what approaching the rest of the score with that same sense of spontaneity might have yielded.

Noah Robbins as Eugene

Noah Robbins as Eugene

There are some gems in the supporting cast of Grease: Live, especially Noah Robbins as Eugene and Kether Donohue as Jan. Robbins works well in his expanded role, nailing Eugene’s role in the halls of Rydell. He plays Eugene as a young man on the way up and builds his character scene by scene. When he arrives to help the T-Birds in a key scene added to this adaptation, it doesn’t ring false because Robbins has developed the character scene by scene. His Eugene is more than dispensible comedy relief. It works. Donohue has it easier in a role that is already an audience favourite, but she hits the mark in each of her scenes. It’s a pity she doesn’t get her moment in “Mooning”.

There are two great cameos by Didi Conn and Barry Pearl in Grease: Live. Both starred in the film adaptation of the show. It was especially fun to see Conn play the reverse side of her scenes from the film. (Has anyone made a YouTube clip of Didi as Frenchy opposite Did as Vi yet?) Was there room for more cameo work here or would that have been overkill? Either way, this was the best of the bunch when it came to stunt casting in this adaptation.

Amidst some pretty uneven work as Danny, Aaron Tveit delivers an exemplary “Sandy”. Written by Louis St. Louis and Scott Simon for the film, “the song replaced the clunky “Alone at a Drive-in Movie”. I must admit I’m not a huge fan of Tveit’s; generally I find his performances lacking in colour. But every now and then he brings it home, and he does that here in spades. This was his most riveting performance in the show.

No GREASE(d) Lightnin’

Jessie J records the title song of GREASE

Jessie J records the title song of GREASE

First things first: the opening number. The inclusion of the title song written by Barry Gibb always causes a bit of a debate. It’s too much for the old guard, who saw and loved the original production, to endure. “It’s not a period song!” the proclaim – and they have a point. Given how associated the song has become with the property, including “Grease” is a compromise I can cope with – if the staging of the number works. The golden standard in this regard, as far as I’m concerned, is the 1993 revival, where the staging of the number establishes the various strata of life at Rydell High School. A pop star walking around behind the soundstages and the backlot with the cast joining in here and there is not good enough. Period. To add insult to injury, Jessie J’s delivery of the song wasn’t exactly first rate either.

While some of the supporting cast members are fantastic, others leave a great deal to be desired. The chief offender here is Elle McLemore, who played Patty Simcox. Sure, the character is grating – but McLemore’s Patty is so annoying that she gives the sidekicks on the Disney Channel’s teen sitcoms a run for their money. Don’t get me wrong – The Wizards of Waverly Place has its, well, place, but nobody wants to see Harper Finkle in Downton Abbey. McLemore’s Patty falters in failing to provide a vital foil for both Sandy and Rizzo, which means that the directors of Grease: Live must share some of the blame. In their push for manic energy, everyone seems to have forgotten who Patty is in the world of Rydell High School and why the character is there in the first place. Close on McLemore’s heels is Haneefah Wood in the comparatively minor role of Blanche.

Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy

Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy

Sometimes a new song adds something to a musical. “I Have Confidence” added a giddy, character-specific transition piece to The Sound of Music. In Cabaret, “Money” helped to communicate that Sally Bowles on film was a different creature in comparison with her stage counterpart, a singer who was capable of far more than performing at dingy cabaret, able to keep her job and who was thus there by choice rather than necessity – get it? Grease: Live added “All I Need Is an Angel” – a generic pop ballad by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Besides its failure to capture any sense of the show’s period, it fails even in setting up the number it introduces, in which Grease: Live presented a trio of Teen Angels – not just the one that Frenchy repeatedly asks for in this number.

“All I Need Is an Angel” segues neatly to the next big problem with Grease: Live: Boyz II Men. Who thought it would be a good idea to hire a smooth R&B vocal group, known for singing ballads and kick-ass harmonies, to put across a comedy number? Vocal riffs and group singing get in the way of punchlines – and this song is all about its punchlines. This was a textbook case of stunt casting gone wrong.

Finally, a question: what do you do with an iconic musical theatre number that just happens to be the closing of your show? Picture that production meeting where it was suggested that “We Go Together” would involve the cast running from a soundstage, mugging at the camera, hopping onto an elongated golf cart and finally arriving to perform some perfunctory choreography on the backlot. Now picture everyone involved thinking that’s a good idea. It’s pretty tough to imagine, isn’t it? What were they thinking?

That’s all that I’m putting on the list for today. What were your highs and lows of Grease: Live? Share them in the comments box below. It’ll be great to hear what you think as we count the days till the next live television musical.

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