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Review : Grease Live

Grease is one of the most beloved musicals of all time, and certainly one of the most enduring movie musicals that has ever come to life. Set in 1959, it follows plain-Jane Sandra Dee’s transfer to a new school full of T-Birds, Pink Ladies and her one-time beach lover Danny Zuko.

There have been many criticisms over the years over the musical’s finale, in which Sandra Dee arrives at the graduation carnival looking like a lycra fantasy to impress her man. Its representative of the fifties as an era and the stage show makes it more of a gradual, introspective thing.

The stage production is the source material for Grease Live, a marathon spectacle put together by FOX after the success of Glee and The Sound of Music Live. It’s a gruelling, expensive affair that has paid dividends with surplus ratings and positive early reviews. Add this one to that pile.

Why so expensive? Because the folks at FOX have recruited some of the best in the business. The stage is a thankless arm of the entertainment industry and certainly not for the faint-hearted. After hundreds of man hours in rehearsal it’s infinitely easier for the audience to spot flaws, exhaustion or worse, disinterest. Theatre is a truly immersive art.

Mix that with the real threat of live television and things get intense. Back in the early noughties, when live television was still a novelty, the advertisements would entire the audience with the possibility of catastrophe during the Australian Idol verdict. Big Brother built its whole premise around it. Now the danger doesn’t seem so real. Grease, with its complicated choreography, quick-changes, soaring notes and sprawling sets ups the ante to eleven. The chance of chaos increases by tenfold.

Thankfully for everybody involved no such event occurred. The biggest stuff-up was in the closing song when the second golf cart cut the corner, hitting the curb and causing ten exhilarated cast members to gasp in terror. The golf cart did not careen into the Ferris wheel or into a stand of spectators. It simply plodded along to its destination, raising the heartbeat of the cast held within.

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Let’s talk about the dynamite cast assembled. This reviewer was sceptical that rising star Julianne Hough was the right call for Sandra Dee. Hough rose to prominence on the much more intense US version of Dancing With the Stars, scored the lead in the underappreciated Rock of Ages and recently did a Nicolas Sparks movie. She’s talented and could certainly do post-transformation Sandy, but what about the timid soul that occupies the other 90% of the musical?

Hough nails it. She completely consumes the role and is a perfect imitation of 70s Olivia Newton-John. Aaron Tveit is an on-point Danny Zuko, especially after the half way point of the show.

All the Pink Ladies are fantastic. If Keke Palmer ran a one woman show about Mary Maraschino it would be a sellout. Carly Rae Jepsen’s Frenchie is a whole lot of fun and proves once again she is more than a one hit wonder. Jepsen could have easily lived off Call Me Maybe money for the rest of her life but instead makes another convincing addition to the growing ‘Carly Rae Is Quality’ argument. Even Kether Donohue’s Jan was memorable. But nobody can deny that Vanessa Hudgens stole the show as Rizzo. Brilliant.

The T-Birds side is a little less spectacular. Kenickie was okay, while Putzie and Sonny were nearly indistinguishable. Doody was the standout character, with Teen Beach Movie’s Jordan Fisher rising to the challenge and then some. He’s since been signed to Hollywood Records after posting a ripping John Legend cover. Expect big things from him.

The supporting cast is still filled with heavy hitters. Will Ferrel’s SNL partner Ana Gasteyer brings structure to the lengthy show as the principal and the film’s Frenchie Didi Conn is a welcome cameo as diner waitress Vi. Wendell Pierce, aka the intimidating tsunami that is Rachel’s dad on Suits, plays a goofy high school football coach.

It’s the scale that makes the ‘Live’ in Grease Live impressive. All these men and women so determined to make it work flies out of the screen and endears the production to the audience. The songs are catchy, the choreography is impressive a few choice dialogue alterations add some spice. Mario Lopez’s “back after a message from our sponsors”, Keke Palmer’s “imagine watching the cinema at home whenever you want” and Julianne Hough’s self-referential quip about “amateur dancers” prevented this from being a senseless remake.

Speaking of Mario Lopez, that accent was phenomenal. It was impressive enough he was doubling as Vince Vontaine and behind the scenes social media guru. That’s one of Grease Live’s biggest strengths. In Australia there hasn’t been a whiff of news that it was even happening. Online the campaigning has been relentless with rehearsal clips, cast interviews, trailers, teasers and more. It’s been a greasy situation without getting annoying.

And finally a moment for our special special guest stars, which were hit and miss. Jessie J’s rendition of Franki Valli’s Grease was a dynamite open to the show. Boyz II Men as the Teenage Angels sounds good on paper and was okay but not up to the quality of the show. Joe Jonas and DNCE as the band for the big dance was a safe choice and worked, although his blonde quiff and shaved sides looked very out of place in the fifties landscape.

At the end of the day it’s still the Grease you know and love. Nothing can compare to the 1979 film but for a whole new generation this will be a good starting point. Hough was unexpectedly awesome. Hudgens knocked it out of the park. Carly Rae rocked and Keke Palmer performed. It was a fantastic effort for all involved but the Pink Ladies were the ones to watch.

Let’s see if FOX can do it all again with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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