Grease is the word, and the word is — OK.
If you’re cataloguing why things seemed somehow both off and on Sunday with Fox’s musical Grease: Live! (** 1/2 out of four), you can start with the use of that nonsensical opening title song, written for the movie and emblematic of the progressive dumbing-down of the material. A Broadway musical that originally spoofed our rose-tinted-glasses view of the ‘50s has turned into a nostalgic wallow, leaving the show with an odd mix of tones — and in this particular version, a book that sometimes seemed to get lost between songs and inside jokes.
Like the musical’s Rydell High, with its divisions between good kids and greasers, this was a Grease at war with itself, a live show that didn’t always look or sound live — leaving you to wonder what exactly was the point of doing it live at all. It was kinetically staged and inventively shot by Thomas Kail, the director of the brilliant Broadway sensation Hamilton, who spread the show across multiple stages and filled every musical number with flash and surprise. Yet it was often so flatly acted, those musical numbers came as a much needed relief.
Unlike NBC’s musicals, Grease had an audience that helped bridge the gap between TV and theater. They were welcome when applauding the musical numbers, and less so when they cheered and screamed like the over-rehearsed crowd at a taping of a talk show.
But then, maybe they had trouble remembering they were at a live musical. The sound seemed so divorced from the performers, you often couldn’t tell if they were singing or lip syncing.
As always, Grease is the love story between Danny and Sandy — played by Aaron Tveit and Julianne Hough, struggling to escape the film shadows of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (which Hough did when she danced). Danny is surrounded by his T-Birds; Sandy wants to join the Pink Ladies, led by tough girl Rizzo (Vanessa Hudgens, who lost her father Saturday).
It’s a good thing Grease has those gangs, because they gave the production its best moments. Keke Palmer lit up the screen in a well-staged Freddy My Love, and it seemed to spark the rest of her performance. Carly Rae Jepsen had a sweet moment with a new song written for this production, though the song itself fit neither the period nor the show and was a particularly odd juxtaposition with Beauty School Drop-Out, which followed. And Hudgens, whose Rizzo was softer than the norm, did a fine job with her big number, There Are Worse Things I Could Do.
Some technical glitches in such an ambitious production are inevitable. The sound dropped in the big Hand Jive dance number, and Hough’s Hopelessly Devoted to You was lost in static. But those were small problems in a production that was otherwise incredibly impressive visually — and one that sprang to life at the end. Enough so, in fact, that it probably left many eager to see what this production team might do next, should Fox give it a second chance.
Which would certainly be OK with me.