by Danny Stout
Fox’s “Grease Live” kept us reasonably entertained, but came nowhere near the euphoria and historical fervor of the original Grease Broadway production and subsequent 1978 film. Without John Travolta (Danny Zuko) and Olivia Newton-John (Sandy Olsson), who were mega-stars at the time, Grease Live fell into the ho-hum innocuous fare of Sunday night shows. It was like Wimbledon without Serena and Venus.
This is unfortunate for Utah’s own Julianne Hough a product of Center Stage Performing Arts Studio in Orem, that rose to celebrity status in the TV show Dancing with the Stars and a hand full of unremarkable film roles. She sang beautifully and danced remarkably. Hough is a great talent, but not right for this role which needed a top-ten knockout star. Hough seems authentic, real, but, while intermittently coy, did not have a stunning presence. Thus, it was not a breakthrough performance for Hough; a missed opportunity. If it’s any consequence for her, Aaron Tveit the lead character Danny Zuko, was anemic and nondescript. Miscast, he was the prince of passivity rather than the king of cool.
Kudos to Director Thomas Kail for his stupefying efforts to extend the legendary Grease phenomenon. Elaborate sets overcome the limitations of television as much as possible. Multiple perspectives of the mobile cams allow provide variation for the eye.
A mix of indoor and outdoor scenes plus a drive-in movie with moving pictures on the screen make this a creative synthesis of stage, TV, and film elements. The finale was such a cornucopia of sight, sound and movement, that it engaged the senses in the same way as the original film. This is the one scene that captures nostalgia and energy of the Grease we’ve loved all these years.
The drab personalities of Hough and Tveit ironically elevate the mature performances of secondary characters. The impeccable work of Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo and Carlos PenaVega as Kenickie almost bring back that Grease magic, but without the right leading actors, the production is only a tidge better than common programs on the other channels.
BYU-Hawaii student Madison Wolman comments, “It’s virtually impossible to recreate a phenomenon like the original. The higher range of Olivia Newton John’s voice fit the innocent Sandy, and while Julianne Hough sang well, she didn’t capture the character like in the original film.” Stephanie Soto, who saw Grease on Broadway said it was, “Easier to immerse yourself in the story in a live stage setting.” Both Wolman and Soto agreed that Grease lends itself to film and theater rather than television.
Grease as a slice of Americana, an historical artifact of the Fifties, needed nothing short of a jaw-dropping spectacle to sustain it into a new generation. Fox’s version unfortunately, started the “slip-sliding away” of Grease from the top tier of nostalgic entertainment that “everyone knows.” As Lydell Tupuono, a U.S. National Guardsman remarked, “You might have to wait for a new generation to rediscover it fresh.” Some Millenials in the audience have never seen the movie version. It’s doubtful that Grease Live will stir their curiosity to do so.