It would be unfair of me to begin this review without mentioning my love for the original Grease. I know I was biased going into Grease Live!, but it’s hard not to be when you grew up watching the classic. John Travolta is Danny Zuko, Olivia Newton-John is Sandy, and Kenickie’s car is a “p— wagon”, not a “dragon wagon”. However, I’m all for remakes done right and despite my hesitation, I went into this one hopeful.
It’s difficult to host a remake of a classic to a live audience, but this is exactly what happened on January 31. Director Alex Rudzinski combined Broadway and Hollywood in this hybrid remake of the original and well, only some of it was done right.
The speed of costume and set changes is something to take note of right away. Actors were made to run around backstage or drive around in golf carts to prep before the next scene started. Without a hint of chaos ensuing from backstage, it was impressive that the cast managed to keep up with the hectic changes.
Unfortunately, this was one of the only impressive things about the entire show. The acting, though the leads were weak, was pretty strong across the board. Vanessa Hudgens and Jordan Fisher stole the show despite having less screen time. It’s a shame that Fisher, only playing minor character Doody, didn’t get more time in the limelight because he was well-rehearsed, energetic, and his singing was strong. Hudgens rocked her rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”, though her overall performance of Rizzo was much tamer than the original. Regardless, she was one of the biggest breaths of fresh air the whole night.
Carly Rae Jepsen took on the role of Frenchie and for the most part she did her job well. She was given a musical number seemingly for the sole reason of “Jepsen should probably have a song.” While she did a good job, the song was an awkward, forced piece that didn’t fit well with “Beauty School Dropout”, which followed. Keke Palmer was a good choice for Marty. She brought her own spin to the character while managing to keep the original self-centered schoolgirl characteristics from the original. Palmer was another who rocked her musical performances.
Now, this next part breaks my heart a little, but Aaron Tveit, who played Danny Zuko, was one of the biggest disappointments of the night. There seems to be this odd thing that takes place with musical theatre sometimes where if you take the music away from a musical theatre performer, the acting disappears with them. I’ve seen this with a few musical theatre actors and Tveit is no exception. Tveit was marvelous in Next to Normal and Catch Me If You Can but take the music away, like in Graceland, and he becomes someone else entirely. He nailed his musical numbers, in particular “Oh, Sandy”, but his acting was subpar. The charm and swagger of Danny Zuko was lost as Tveit fell into the trap of “the overly-excited actor who finally got to play Zuko”. He also has a lot of trouble playing the bad boy, which is not a character Tveit is designed to play.
Julianne Hough, who played Sandy, was no better. Her singing was strong and her dancing was fine, but these things were ultimately outweighed by her bland acting. A forced ear-to-ear smile in an attempt to portray Sandy’s innocence or a soft-spoken monotone were the only two ranges Hough could hit. Hough and Tveit also seemed to speed through their lines despite the three-hour runtime.
In addition to the weak leads, there were a lot of disappointing scenes and changes made as well. “Greased Lightning” succumbed to unfortunate changes to the lyrics and choreography that omitted all classic dance moves from the original. However, the most awkward moment of the show goes to Tveit and Hough at the drive-in theatre. When Danny tries to make out with Sandy, she leaves, throws his ring back at him, and slams the car door on his genitals. Travolta’s reaction in the original was priceless. Tveit, on the other hand, seemed to only be slightly inconvenienced by this, which was noticeably bad acting. Neither had any chemistry either, which when piled on top of the already awkward performances, only made matters worse.
The live audience was something that took away from the experience as well. One of the worst things in the world is when someone tries to be funny and gets no laughs, and this is exactly what happened during a lot of funny moments in the live version. The audience either remained dead silent when they were supposed to cheer or would scream for their favourite actors in the middle of musical numbers, seemingly forgetting that they were interrupting the performances by doing so. Technical difficulties were present as well, namely with “Hopelessly Devoted to You”. Not only was the song changed from its position in the original set list, but it was accompanied by a terrible crackling throughout from Hough’s mic.
Overall, the show was a bust. And, hey, I’m not the only one who thinks so. USA Today gave the show a ½ star out of 4 and Variety called the two leads “a snooze”, which indeed they were. But I can’t end this review without mentioning the only time that made me cheer out loud. Didi Conn, original Frenchie, made an appearance as Vi and seeing an original cast member made my heart grow three sizes. She was the best part of the evening.