Grease: Live! - There Are Worse Things They Could Do (A Review)
Very much like the differing accounts of the same romance in the song "Summer Lovin'", this review could easily employ a split screen to capture my schizophrenic opinion of last night's production of Grease: Live! on Fox television. It was certainly not a calamity and within its bizarrely, uninspired re-imagining, there were little bursts of wonderful to keep us invested through it's awkward conclusion.
Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's Grease was a big hit when it first appeared on the theatre scene in 1971, starting out Off-Broadway, then transferring to Broadway for a run of 3, 388 performances. It it's original inception, Grease was raucous and unapologetic, youthful and even cynical. Somehow that approach was considered a hard pill to swallow when it made the leap to the big screen in 1978 where it was softened and homogenized just enough to make it silly satire. The film also excised several songs from the original stage piece and interpolated some very popular new songs. The result being: there is no definitive version of Grease and the Fox live production seems to have cobbled together their own version of the show, drawing on both the stage and film versions equally.
The first problem with Grease: Live! stems from directors Thomas Kail and Alex Rudzinski's indecision on whether or not they wanted to re-stage the iconic film or create a fresh approach to the material. In fact, even as they try to leave the ghosts of the film behind, they end up stealing many of the staging gimmicks of the film in what has to equate to, at the very most, artistic robbery and at the very least, a desperate laziness. I, for one, have seen Grease as a film and was excited to see something that didn't make me recall a superior production. Grease: Live! drew too much attention to the 1978 film, robbing this version a chance to breathe in its own right. Too much was tied to the audience's nostalgia for the film.
The Live production of Grease had a lot of challenges thrown at it from rainstorms forcing last-minute location changes, to one of the leads (Vanessa Hudgens) losing her father to cancer just the day before. In regards to the former, Fox put a lot of eggs in Mother Nature's basket, staging chunks of the production outside with only the vaguest of plan Bs to accommodate for precipitation. This resulted in poor lighting for exterior shots, clunky adjustment to transplanted staging, and a sound design that gave the impression it was being achieved by a toddler with two soup cans and some string. Hudgens, on the other hand, was galvanized by her recent tragedy and gave one of the evening's most nuanced and touching performances as the tough-as-nails Pink Lady Betty Rizzo. Her interpretation of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" was the musical and emotional highlight of the production, proving that there is more to this High School Musical alumnus than "Most Likely to Live in Zac Efron's Shadow."
The rest of the leading cast was not as fortunate. Julianne Hough, who is a very talented dancer, was not served well by the clumsy, pedestrian choreography of this production. I have never found Hough to act as well as she moves, and her Sandy is thin and without dimension. Her singing voice is fine, but not exactly brimming with technique or even verve. This is why I had hoped she would be afforded the opportunity let loose on the dance floor and show off the talents she does have. No such luck. Aaron Tveit has been the wet dream of most theatre enthusiasts since he first dazzled us in Next to Normal. As talented as this guy is (and he is quite a bit more than just a pretty boy), he never relaxes into the role of Danny Zuko. Trying desperately one minute to shake the memory of John Travolta and then mimicking his performance the next, Tveit never trusts his own instincts and abilities to come up with his own take on this goofy greaser. There is also zero chemistry between him and Hough, and in one awkwardly staged moment, he appeared to be swooning over Doody (Jordan Fisher).
The supporting cast featured a hand full of bright spots, especially in the aforementioned Fisher. Until now, Fisher has mostly been relegated to third banana in the Disney Teen Beach movies. He's been wasted there. He revealed a truly beautiful voice and he wrapped his vocal cords creamily around "Those Magic Changes." Carly Rae Jepsen seemed poised to give us something special as Frenchy, but the new song she was given did not sound like it belonged in the score, neutering her chance to show off the best of her talents. Ana Gasteyer, as Principal McGee, was a blast and I found myself looking forward to her interruptions with poorly-worded (to comedic effect) announcements.
Grease: Live! did one thing extremely well: it utilized a live audience as part of the proceedings. It was done to varying effect, but it brought an energy to the live musical trend that has been sorely lacking. There was no longer that dead emptiness after musical numbers, an awkward nothingness that laid like a pall over The Sound of Music and even the far-superior The Wiz. If Grease - Live! was lacking in imagination, originality, spontaneity and gusto, it did make the the case for how the live theatre trend can evolve and sustain through that inclusion of theatre's final essential element: the audience. There are worse things they could do.