The 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.
Buoyed 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.
* 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.