What’s the Word on Grease! Live?

1 Feb

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By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)

I have to wonder how those lucky fans present at the taping of Grease Live! got to see the entire show when the production spanned across two sound stages and an outdoor set? Was there a huge screen that it was played on at the Warner Bros Studios lot? The broadcast certainly showed the energy and enthusiasm for the lucky 500 or so folks who got to participate on set (especially in the school gym), but the show is not true live theatre; by the time it was shown on the west coast the social media aspect of live tweeting was already on repeat.

It’s easy to notice that some musical numbers were prerecorded so the performers can concentrate on their moves while others were indeed live, where musicians are visibly performing. Unless the microphones are seen (these days, they are so tiny because an eagle eye is needed to spot how they are taped close to the body), I just have to wonder how the sound was mixed in order for it to be ready for television broadcast. Other media outlets reported on the sound issue the East Coast broadcast had and it was fixed for the evening West Coast edition. Warts and all, I would have appreciated observing that earlier show.

If a truly live broadcast is supposed to have that real-time feeling, it would be playing across the continent at each time zone’s respective hour. The show probably started around 4pm PST for airing at 7pm EST. To get the feeling of a real time production means tuning into a national public broadcasting station for one of their telethons.

The production was highly entertaining and it did have the feeling of being a stage show. Curiously, it broke the fourth wall a few times instead of being presented as a cinematic musical. I danced along to my favourite numbers (it’s tough not to for “Greased Lightning”) and I watched a PVRed version so I can to fast forward through the commercials and repeat the musical segments I enjoyed. To not have the rocking shack in “You’re the One that I Want” felt weird and Julianne Hough looked fantastic in spandex. I thought she channeled Olivia-Newton John‘s sweet demure by about 75%. She did a great job with “Hopelessly Devoted To You” even though it was imitative of the movie version. Aaron Tveit was okay as Danny Zuko but there was a spark missing in his reaction to Sandy in tights; these two should be on fire and all I could see were smoke signals.

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The one number that stole the show is “Those Magic Changes.” Doody (Jordan Fisher) perfectly plays and sells the idea as the surroundings change from the diner to the gym when Zuko wants to change himself for the better to win back Sandy. Their love is far from perfect when both have to deal with peer pressure and lack of understanding the needs of the other.

The producers certainly had high aspirations in this 21st century interpretation. This show brought in the best from the theatrical and movie version. More people will know the latter better as the original has changed its content a lot since its inception. A bit of this play’s original raciness feels lost over time. Edits to the content was expected and the additions (namely to give Carly Rae Jepsen’s Frenchy a solo number) sadly felt out-of-place. Part of this production’s appeal is because of the subject matter about sex, no drugs and rock n’ roll. The story is about awakening to new sensibilities when the 50’s came to an end. Part of the narrative involves each individual taking responsibility for their actions by establishing a proper future for themselves foreshadowed by Eugene (Noah Robbins) carrying a poster of a rocket in school. When the T-birds catch sight of it, they can only laugh before Principal McGee (Ana Gasteyer) enters the scene and orders them to go to home room.

This story sadly gets overshadowed by the lavish musical numbers. As rich and extravagant as they are, it fulfills getting inside each character’s head for what they personally want. “Freddy, my Love” by Matty (Keke Palmer) is a perfect example. Curiously, this latest version intones an odd message from Coach Calhoun (Wendell Pierce) of no singles or threesomes on the dance floor —  now what were writers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey thinking? They crafted the original product and not even the movie version suggested sexual experimentation. Even though revisions to sanitize the sexual content were blatant to make the product accessible to youths, the rawness of the original product is sorely missed.

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Now, Grease‘s word is to focus on the budding love of the two leading protagonists. The rest of the gang are horny toads not fully concerned about their future until the denouement. Very little is said about the careers the gang want to settle into after graduation. The product is more about keeping the camaraderie together instead of going their separate ways. At least Frenchy (Didi Conn) decided to take control of her life and returned to school to get her diploma so she can start her own cosmetics company in Grease 2.

The 60’s is a very different era and as far as the music is concerned in Grease, this production was designed to celebrate rock and roll. The FOX broadcast does succeed in that regard in the look made for Doody. His Buddy Holly like appearance is a score; sadly there was no Elvis in the building or other rebels without a cause to add to the diversity. For a musical like Grease, the source material cannot be modified too much without alienating long time fans like me. I’ll stick to my Broadway recordings of earlier productions and Little Shop of Horrors. Those musicals represented the era better than this retelling using today’s artists. I’m still scratching my head at the punkish looking band performing “Born to Hand Jive” at the dance-off sequence.

3 Stars out of 5

 

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