Grease: Live Review: Fox's Magical Remake Had Groove, It Had Meaning

grade_AThe biggest challenge for any remake/reboot/reimagining is putting some distance between itself and its beloved source material.

And so while Fox’s Grease: Live used elements from the original stage production on Sunday night, its biggest challenge was enchanting fans of the iconic 1978 John Travolta-Olivia Newton John movie adaptation.

But as anyone who’s enjoyed cheeseburgers at multiple restaurants or loves both the Beatles’ and Aretha Franklin’s “Eleanor Rigby” can attest, it’s absolutely possible to fall head over heels for multiple versions of the same thing.

So please, don’t call it blasphemy that — at least for tonight — John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are as far from my brain (and my heart) as Bernie Sanders is from a Rick Santorum endorsement.

To put it another way, Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko, Julianne Hough’s Sandy and (perhaps most of all) Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo made Fox’s three-hour production faster, funnier, sweeter and more instantly iconic than it was possible to imagine.

IMG_0758_hires1Buoyed by tremendous camera work, fleet-footed choreography, a kicky cast in which no one laid claim to “weak link” status, and a sound mix that was fuller (or less tinny) than any comparable production that’s come before it, Grease built on the live (but not in front of a live audience) musicals championed by rival NBC over the last three years.

Right from Jessie J.’s opening “Grease Is the Word” — in which the pop star managed to trek through seemingly two miles of backstage passageways and show sets — the tone was set: There wasn’t a minuscule detail that director Thomas Kail (Hamilton) overlooked. OK, there were about 30 seconds of lost audio during “Born to Hand Jive” — but that just reinforced the fact that everything happening was terrifyingly of-the-moment.

It’s hard to pick out highlights of a production that — almost miraculously — sustained an infectious level of energy and an appealingly retro aura of innocence over the course of three hours, but if we had to narrow it down, we’d hand trophies to the following moments:

* Hudgens — on the same day she lost her father to cancer — infusing “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a gleefully bitchy comic edge,  and then outdoing herself on that song’s heartbreaking counterpoint, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Yeah, the High School Musical grad was already a star, but that star was reborn tonight.

FM2_4988_hires1* Graceland‘s Tveit — a sex bomb who threatened to bust out of every seam of his wardrobe — bringing macho-guy swagger to his high-sch0ol bad boy role, and yet also beautifully capturing the awkwardness of teenage courtship (despite the fact that he’s 32 years old). That scene with Sandy at the drive-through let us feel the uncertainty of Danny trying to get his arm around his new girlfriend, but also the wounded pride of a guy who couldn’t understand why he was getting rebuked.

* “Summer Lovin'” (aka the best song on the Grease soundtrack) brought to vibrant life by the cast’s winning choreography. Danny’s crew of guys worked the bleachers with delicious aplomb, while Hough led the ladies through a cafeteria jamboree. (Her cheerleading tryout stood alone, though, as the night’s eye-poppingest footwork.) “Summer Lovin'” proved the exact right burst of “Yes, this will be fantastic!” at an early point in the teleast where skeptics (me included) needed to put down their brickbats and torches and surrender to the joy of it all.

* “Greased Lightning” may have been the telecast’s weak point in terms of direction — so many closeups of Tveit and Carlos PenaVega’s Kenickie reduced our enjoyment of the overall staging — but the fellas pushing themselves to the point of collapse more than made up for it.

* The lengthy interlude focusing on the Rydell dance — with flashes of Vince Fontaine and the National Bandstand’s “live from the gymnasium”  broadcast in black and white — was the night’s most mesmerizing set piece. “Born to Hand Jive” brought us Sandy’s heatbreak, Jan’s (a scene-stealing Kether Donohue) goofiness and Tveit’s reminder to casting directors that he’s the one that we want in all the leading roles.

* OK, so Grease‘s final message — Sandy has to sacrifice her sense of good-girl self to get the guy — is a little horrifying, but our inner feminist was so busy singing along to “You’re the One That I Want” and couch-dancing to a reprise of “Hand Jive” that we maybe kinda sorta tucked away our outrage.

The TVLine Bottom Line: Grease‘s live audience and inconsequential snafus served to underscore its meticulous production and allowed us to get swept up in a joyous and uniformly powerful set of performances.

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Cookie says:

    “Grease‘s final message — Sandy has to sacrifice her sense of good-girl self to get the guy — is a little horrifying”

    They change for each other. Danny letters in track and Sandy gets an edge.

    • Kay says:

      I agree. For some reason Danny changing too always gets ignored.

    • Matt says:

      I’ve always heard people say this, but the two aren’t really comparable. Danny takes up a new activity, Sandy changes her values and personality.

      • Cookie says:

        Danny plays a sport and wears a letter jacket. Sandy wears a black jumpsuit and teases her hair. I don’t see a huge difference.

    • Drew says:

      Not exactly. Danny learns to be comfortable being himself. He was nice and kind to Sandy over the summer before they started school. The sports thing was him trying to make up for being a jerk after that.
      Sandy… I’m going to hope that she is only changing her look as a gesture of understanding. I hope that she wouldn’t actually live the rest of her life like that or suddenly start putting out because she feels like she has to.

    • Mark says:

      Danny changes to improve himself and broaden his interests to make himself a better person for her. Sandy becomes a slut. BIG difference.

      • Cookie says:

        Mmmm no, I don’t see Sandy becoming “a slut.” Does putting on a tight black outfit suddenly make someone slutty?

        Sandy doesn’t put out so she’s a prude. Rizzo sleeps with a guy and she’s the slutty one. Girls can’t win.

        • Drew says:

          Rizzo actually goes to great lengths to make people view her that way. It isn’t a societal issue, it is a personal issue.

    • Tina says:

      Yes, I didn’t think Sandy was the only one to sacrifice and I doubt if she changed her good-girl image completely

    • I have been saying this for days to everyone that brings this up. Why does Danny’s pushing to “letter” for her get overlooked when it makes up an entire montage in the show (all the shows – stage and movie), yet Sandy’s last minute decision to vamp it up get everyone all pissy. Is it because he changed for the better?

      I laugh – cuz the show is camp pure and simple. Some stuff can just be fun. No outrage needed.

    • NJMark says:

      It was a send-up of all the movies where the guy changes to get the girl. Nothing horrifying to see here.

  2. Remy says:

    No comment about the cart that ran over a curb & nearly fell over at the end?

  3. Steven says:

    Wasn’t crazy about the new song for Carly Rae or Beauty School Dropout, but other than that, phenominal!

  4. D says:

    great cast, incredible job

  5. ninamags says:

    It was fantastic! The dance scene in the gym was amazing. I hadn’t realized how dirty “Greased Lightning” is and it seemed kind of weak when it was all neutered.

    Did the ferris wheel really work? That last set was surreal.

    i totally loved it. I don’t know how it compares to the other live stage productions they’ve shown in the past, (Sound of Music, The Wiz) since I didn’t see them but this was great.

  6. Bree says:

    Fantastic! The only negative was Carly Rae Jepson’s song was awful. Julianne Hough was terrific as Sandy.

    • KC says:

      Agreed that Jepson is bad, she should not have been cast. I totally disagree with Hough – she was BAD

    • I though Jepsen was fun as Pinky. Julianne was weak at times – especially when she tried to sing while dancing, She is such a strong dancer that the singing took a back seat. And during “Hopelessly Devoted”, you could clearly see that she has a strong voice while singing loudly but has no inflection. She looked the part and that was fun. But the cast sang circles around her.

      Just my opinion (and everyone else’s that I have spoke with since the airing)

  7. StephonJS says:

    I disagree I like the Boyz II Men number for Beauty School Drop Out…
    So no one notice Aaron almost fell during the school dance scene?

    • The Beach says:

      Really? I thought Beauty School Drop Out was by far the worst number in the show. They were off-key (esp the one that opened the song) so much of the song and then threw in way too many unnecessary and pitchy runs…really rough.

  8. Josh says:

    It was awesome! Kudos to Vanessa performing a day after the death of her father and nailing the role of Rizzo. Whoever played Patty was spot on and you’re right Michael not a weak link in the cast what so ever IMO.

  9. Ryan says:

    Pretty sure they both tried to change for each other in the end… I’ve always taken it as they were both willing to change and therefore neither needed to change… The other loved the other for who they were.

  10. Jenny says:

    I know they said they were taking things from both the movie and play. However, there were many times where things were not from either and changed for no reason except for it allowed for a set change. I wish they would have stuck to either just the movie or just the stage production. I much prefer the live productions NBC has done, because I feel they are much closer to what the theater experience is like (hard to capture on television unless you just record a theater performance).

    • Slezak C’mon I watch you all the time I enjoy all your articles. You give this an A?This entire production was miscast, except for Vanessa, KeKe, and Carly. It felt like a Saved by the Bell reunion meets Undateable. They put in a couple of songs from the stage show. which most of America does not know or care about. Boyz2Men was off key and had no business being there. They should have thrown in Nick Lachay in there .They threw in a new song of NO reason which made no sense at all. at best I would give it a C Minus. Melinda Doolittle would certainly agree with me.

      • Trista says:

        Thank you! A voice of common sense!

      • David H says:

        If you posted your opinion once I’d take it as an opposing viewpoint. But how many of these “it sucked!” posts are you up to, now? You’re a troll – back under the bridge with you.

      • Mary says:

        Although it wasn’t perfect, and I did think that Danny character was miscast, I thought it was better than I expected. It was a enjoyable night of TV. A might have been a grade to high but C is really an exaggeration. Take the show for what it was, and if you were expecting to see top rated like Broadway – then you would have been disappointed. For me personally the film with John and Olivia is the best and nothing will come close but I looked at it from strictly an entertainment perspective – that was an A.

      • Elle says:

        Really? I thought Keke’s acting was utterly cringey and terrible, Carly Rae Jephson was the weak link in the cast and it took me a while to adjust to Vanessa being anything other than Gabriella from High school musical

  11. Ella says:

    The only weak leak was Julianne Hough’s singing/acting. Her dancing was awesome as always

    • Maria says:

      I agree, Julianne was simply bland as Sandy. She’s a talented dancer, and her singing was okay, but as an actress she simply left me cold. In fact, I wondered if she had the flu or something she was so lackluster until the very final number.

    • Liked it says:

      I thought Julianne was terrific! I didn’t know she had such a good voice. She made a perfect Sandy.

  12. Patricia Pignatora says:

    LOVED IT!!!! I’m a big Grease fan and I thought it was awesome well done everybody.

  13. Mike says:

    Unpopular opinion it seems but I thought Aaron was terribly miscast as Danny. No charisma as compared to Travolta. Just so vanilla and bland. He didn’t even look or sound like he belonged in the group. Surprisingly, I had no issues with Hough. She was fine as Sandy. And the rest of the cast ranged from quite good to excellent.
    BTW, I knew who just about everyone was except for the dude who played Kineckie. Who is that? He did a really solid job and was quite easy on the eyes but I’ve never seen him before in anything.

  14. Annie says:

    Am I the only one that thought this was a schlocky echo of the film? Hudgens and Jepsen did respectable jobs, but the actress playing Sandy was *terrible* – she lacked any charm or niceness that the role demands.

  15. Bwhit says:

    Aaron Tveit was amazing, he played the conflicted bad boy perfectly and I knew he could sing like that but I had no idea he had those moves! I loved it… Way more than any of the NBC musicals. The cast was awesome and hats off to them with all they had to do during the broadcast. I totally agree with your grade.

  16. wrstlgirl says:

    Vanessa stole the show IMO.

  17. wrstlgirl says:

    That would have been horrible but awesome at the same time.

  18. Raul J says:

    It was awesome. Vanessa Hudgens was fantastic. It was very well cast and a perfect complement to the original.

  19. Emmy says:

    I didn’t hear it (my hard of hearing) but my friend said that they had a microphone on and they could hear someone shouting out directions off stage on the last song (like get closer, move a part). I don’t know for sure, but I was wondering if others did.

    No I did not like the Danny, and between the seven girls in my room watching these, none of did. He was very talented but every song he sang he failed to capture Danny. I guess it would be hard to compete with Travolta.

    Now let’s get serious…was anyone else a little disturb to see two stars from many people
    s childhood in that car, with legs up? I mean, we knew the scene was coming but jeez…all innocence was gone.

  20. Susan says:

    We loved it! It took a few minutes to forget about the original cast members. I thought that Julianne Hough did a great job as Sandy,too. The role isn’t as flashy as Rizzo’ s, but she totally made us forget about Olivia Newton John in the role. Great job by everyone!

  21. HTGR says:

    Yeah, couldn’t help but smile and feel great after watching it in the end.

    They really pulled it off amazingly well too especially since it seemed they took the already tricky camera work, staging and so on to another level not tried yet on this sort of live production of this nature.

  22. John Thompson says:

    Loved the live show of Grease on tv

  23. Laura says:

    They used the same set as Pretry Little Liars and Gilmore Girls, right? I was hoping Miss Patty would appear in the final dance number.

  24. CK says:

    I think the Wiz raised the bar on performances while Grease raised the bar on technical matters and scale.I did have issues with Grease, mainly the leads and their chemistry, I think it was a great show that should further enhance the quality of every live musical after it.

  25. HTGR says:

    There was a second snafu in that one of the mics had some problems with static for the right channel in ““Hopelessly Devoted to You” but at least is seemed like it was the atmosphere mic and not her singing mic so it didn’t really mess it up.

    • Piers says:

      She was lip syncing to an auto-tuned recording.

      • HTGR says:

        I don’t think so.

      • Thijs says:

        I had to turn “Grease Live” off because I dislike being duped. It’s hard to listen to computer generated “in between” notes (auto-tuning) because the singers no longer sound pleasant and natural. It’s also hard to tell how much of the production was lip synced, but when the lip syncing was obvious (singers forgetting to mouth words, perfect sustained pitch with no inflection while turning head, and repeated choruses that sound identical) it was disappointing.

  26. Gail says:

    I think this as well as the NBC musicals are too big to feel like a theatrical musical. These shows are their own thing which is not live theater. You know the actors are under pressure but I am not sure if that adds the the enjoyment . I think I prefer theater on TV where they film a few live performances and then edit them by taking the best parts of the performances they taped.

  27. Bwhit says:

    I commented once but I think comparing this to the movie is a bit unfair… The movie had the benefit of editing after the fact and they could go back and do another take if someone messed up. These actors were given a big task and Delivered in my opinion.

    • Larc says:

      I think doing the show live was stupid. Too many chances for things to go wrong and no benefits except bragging rights, which are basically worthless.

      • Mary says:

        Have you ever gone to a Broadway show? Yes a live show could be challenging but also accelerating. Taking the easy way out doesn’t leave room for much rewards.

      • Timmah says:

        The live thing is gimmicky, yes, but it probably draws in a fair number of additional viewers who probably wouldn’t tune in if it was recorded. And it gives it more of a flavor of being a live theater show. My complaint is that I wish they would cast true “triple threat” live stage pros, because the ones they had last night for the most part clearly weren’t, and I thought as a result the show was lackluster.

      • NotHardly says:

        Good lord, have you never actually been to a live theater production? Every single performance is a chance for things to “go wrong”. Thousands of talented actors and musicians take that chance every single performance because it’s also a chance for things to go absolutely right and draw you into an experience like no other. If you want slick, pre-packaged entertainment where everything is controlled every second it’s best to stick with pabulum like Keeping up with the Kardashians.

  28. Para says:

    I cant believe there is no shameless recap today, Dont want to spoil anyone but all I am going to say is please write a recap so I can write on its comment section!!!

  29. Tammy says:

    They tried too hard with moving from set to set. Either make a movie or stage a musical. I thought it had no energy at all because of the fluff they had to put in to transition from set to set. Plus the close ups made it hard to appreciate the dance numbers. I love musical theater and this wasnt what I wanted to see. Julianne doesn’t have a strong enough voice. Vanessa spending that time on Broadway has really paid off for her. She was the highlight of the night. Sorry this was a C at best.

  30. Orion says:

    Rizzo was the star, Danny was alright, seemed Sandy was left out in the beginning with very little dialogue…sound was off and on making some songs sound off. Mario mentioned American Bandstand.vice national. However overall not was watchable..high marks to Vanessa who stole the show.

  31. Irving Itman says:

    For my part having seen the original 1978 movie and also seeing Olivia Newton-John perform some of the songs live at a cousin’s wedding in Hawaii I think this production was really super well done and kept the classic story alive and well and at points very emotional kudos to Vanessa Julianne & Aaron the main characters and the whole cast and production crew The sets the staging the costumes the lighting the music and DANCING everything in the show kept me glued to the TV for three hours

  32. Diane Banks says:

    Much as I hate to agree with you because Aaron looks so good and brings Broadway pedigree, he just didn’t bring the charisma. It was odd – like he was only half there for the performance – needed more commitment, energy, etc.

  33. Bella says:

    This was the best of the live t.v. musicals by far. I thought Vanessa Hudgens did the best, Aaron 2nd and Julianne 3rd. Most impressive? How they were able to sing and dance at the same time. Well done.

  34. Chuck says:

    For all of the show’s amazing technical prowess, it still felt a little flat in the emotional department. It was such a massive production – and certainly sets a bar for live TV – that I think the humanity got a little lost a bit. But Vanessa Hudgens did steal the show with her very heartfelt “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.”

    • Rob M says:

      I love Grease but I would have to say that the only thing really noteworthy about this show was Vanessa Hudgen’s performance. She really showed how you deliver a musical number. Julianne Hough just didn’t project musically and Aaron Tzveit was white bread in every way. I love Jessi J but she seemed tense and it may have affected her voice. Overall the sound was mediocre – I kept wishing they’d mike the singers better. Only Vanessa smashed through all the limitations and shone like a star.

  35. ninergrl6 says:

    Loved it! Grease has been one of my favorite movies since I was a little girl, and tonight’s remake did not disappoint. Yeah the ultimate message kind of sucks, but the songs! The dancing! It just fills me with joy. From Jessie J’s opening performance, I knew I was going to love it. Aaron Tveit has been my “Broadway boyfriend” for many years, but now I’m gonna have to share him with the world because DAMN he killed it! Kudos to the whole cast and crew for pulling off a tremendously entertaining show.

  36. Hannah says:

    Vanessa and the gentleman who played Doody (forgive me idk his name) were the MVPs hands down but overall everyone did great. Hats off to everyone.

  37. I would watch that show again. All the actors did a great job. Julianne looked enough like Olivia Newton John when she became hot sandy. Kudos to all

  38. Ann says:

    Two comments on the comments in the slide show: The “network guy” was played by Barry Pearl, who was in the original production on Broadway, and was Doody in the 1978 film version. And “whoever it was” who put Aaron Tveit in John Travolta’s black T-shirt is William Ivey Long, considered the greatest current costume designer, with a wall full of Tony awards.

  39. Carol says:

    Aaron Tveit was great! He makes me weak in the knees with his looks and he’s talented on top of good looking. I already miss Graceland. He needs a new show!

  40. mill says:

    Wow really disappointed in this if your gonna name it “Grease Live” then stick to the original songs and scenes I thought it was horrible!!Actors were trying too hard..Only good thing about it was Didi Conn the real Frenchie!!

  41. I really enjoyed it in the beginning. Then it started to drag but I just couldn’t change the channel. Vanessa H and Carley Rae were very good. Unlike you, I couldn’t help but compare Julianne to Olivia…. because her vocals were much weaker (to my ear). The whole production was pretty amazing. Why does Mario Lopez always do cheesy??? I give it a B+

  42. Remizak says:

    This didn’t work for me at all. The cast was talented, but except for a few moments here and there, the whole production was an unsuccessful attempt to mimic the movie. It was like karaoke Grease, only with $16M wasted on broadcasting it from a film set. What I want to see is a live *theater* production, not a monstrosity that’s so overproduced it loses all the freshness and magic of live theater.

  43. Music fan says:

    I’m confused as to why no one has said anything about KeKe Palmer over acting the entire time and singing horribly. Julianne may not have been as strong as ONJ she was at least watchable. KP made me look away every time she opened her mouth.

    • ninergrl6 says:

      Yeah KP was by far the weakest link. Her overacting may have played okay on stage, but it was super obnoxious on TV. Her singing voice is lovely, but most of her acting moments were cringe-worthy.

    • Rob says:

      Yeah, she was utterly horrible. They really couldn’t find someone better was all I was thinking. That was the worst performance I have ever seen,

    • Melissa says:

      I totally agree! I actually googled Keke Palmer over-act and you are the ONLY thing I have found. Are people clueless?? lol

  44. Erica says:

    Where you watching the same thing as me? I thought it was horrible and the worse part was Hudgens. I had to turn it off

  45. Amber says:

    I have a feeling that every critic Is going to “love” this show because of the personal issues that Vanessa Hudgens had going on. Because no one wants to be the person to dump on the girl who’s father just died. But honestly, it wasn’t good. Because Grease isn’t that great of a play/movie.

  46. Liz says:

    If KeKe Palmer had chewed the dialog any harder her jaw would have broken. She was absolutely horrible as Marty.

  47. Crys says:

    I wouldn’t give it an A. But a solid B. The technical aspects were the best for a live (on tv) production so far. I didn’t like the guy who played Danny at all. I kinda cringed every time he came on. There was no chemistry with Julianne so there scenes together lagged. Vanessa Hudgens didn’t copy Stockard Channing’s performance and made the part her own. She KILLED it; I was very impressed. Now notes from a Grease (movie) aficionado: I hated the girl who played ChaCha. She was awful, their dance was lackluster. So disappointed. What happened to th hand jive???!!!?? That was NOT the hand jive. Which made no sense considering they did it right on the commercials. I did love the opening number. And for all the clunky parts; the final scene (after that golf cart almost wiped out lol) had the same giddy emotion as the end of the move. Solid B. Good job Fox.

  48. Kim R says:

    If I could “like” every sentence of your recap Mr. Slezak, I would! I said this on another item but my first job was at our local cinema. When Grease hit the big screen, I saw it too many times to count. The production last night in no way let me down. It’s funny after all these years still knowing all the words. Immensely enjoyable!

  49. Sylvia says:

    Didn’t get to watch all of it because Downton was on, but watching the first two hours, I would say that Vanessa Hudgens was the strongest cast member. The dancing was by far the best part of the show. The rest of the Pink Ladies besides Hudgens were not very good. And, say what you want about John Travolta, his Danny is the only Danny. Tveit was okay, but too old and not very charismatic. I actually thought Hough was fairly decent as Sandy. And adding that awful song for CRJ was unnecessary fan service. Just terrible and Boys to Men did no justice to Beauty School Dropout either. Not sure why they thought that was a good idea. I also missed Eve Arden’s dry wit as Principal McGee. But it wasn’t awful and quite a step above NBC”s “Sound of Music” which was nigh unwatchable.

    • CIP says:

      I felt the same way about the lead. I think he is very talented but I could not get Travolta out of my head. The sets, singing and dancing were good but I sensed a lack of chemistry among the cast. Maybe they were too worried about hitting the right notes and spots.