Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Grease Live

Since I love anything related to musicals and show tunes, it was with wary anticipation that I prepared to watch the third attempt at a new form of musical presentation–the live stage performance filmed and broadcast real-time to television audiences nation-wide.  The first attempt at this format was with The Sound of Music starring former American Idol winner and country star Carrie Underwood.  While her singing was fine, Underwood's acting abilities left much to be desired.  So much for stunt-casting to take advantage of popular celebrities to attract viewing interest.  A similar fate awaited the much panned (pun intended) live performance of Peter Pan starring Alison Williams from the TV show Girls as Peter, and Christopher Walken (who can't seem to sing or dance) as Captain Hook.  I cringed while watching stilted and wooden acting in the Sound of Music Live, and actually fell asleep while watching Peter Pan Live.  I'm not sure which was worse?  IMDB reviewers weighed in on this, giving the former a 5.8/10 rating and the latter an even lower 5.1 rating.

Hoping that the "third time's a charm", we sat down to watch Grease Live, which is based on a combination of the 1971 Broadway musical and the iconic 1978 film starring Olivia Newton John and John Travolta.  Danny Zuko, leader of the high school gang the T-Birds has a summer fling with Sandy Olsson which ends when she has to return to her home town.  Instead she ends up transferring to his school, where he is torn between his affection for her and his need to maintain his cool reputation in front of the T-Birds (Kenickie, Doody, Sonny and Roger) and their female counterparts, the Pink Ladies (Frenchy, Marty, Jan), led by the tough-as-nails Rizzo.  I have not watched the Broadway musical before, but I have viewed the movie version many times and even owned the LP recording and later on, the CD.  So especially in the beginning before I got used to the new cast, I could not help but compare Grease Live to my fond memories of Grease the movie.

Right off the bat, I had issues with the look of  Aaron Tveit in the role of Danny Zuko.  He looked more like my memory of Kenickie as played by Jeff Conway than of dark, sauve John Travolta.  It took me a while to get used to Tveit in his role, as well as the dark-haired Carlos PenaVega who actually played Kenickie in the live musical.  In long shots or quick dance scenes when they were moving around a lot, I kept getting them mixed up.  In fact, it was difficult figuring out who was who for most of the individual T-Birds and Pink Ladies since they looked so different from the movie.

The exceptions were the roles of Sandy played by blond singer, actress and former Dancing with the Stars cast member Julianne Hough, Rizzo played by Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame, and Frenchy, played by Canadian "Call Me Maybe" singer Carly Rae Jepsen.  Due to hair, makeup and wardrobe more than facial resemblances, the look of these three seemed to be carbon copies of their counterparts from the film.

The casting directors of Grease Live must have anticipated the #OscarSoWhite controversy when they cast the roles in this musical, since there were no shortage of visible minorities.  This included the roles of Blanche, the administrative assistant to the Principal, the gym instructor Coach Calhoun, Pink Lady Marty, T-Bird member Doddy, and even the "Teen Angel" who advises Frenchy to give high school another try, played by 80s R&B group Boyz II Men.

In a sentimental casting coup, two original actors from the movie were given cameo roles in this musical.  Didi Conn was the original Frenchy but now plays the role of the waitress Vi from the burger joint.  A new role was written for Barry Pearl who played T-Bird member Doody in the movie.  In the musical, he is a producer scouting out schools to determine which one will be chosen for the nationally televised dance.  In another throw-back-to-the-past moment, the auto mechanics teacher Mrs. Murdock is played by Eve Plumb, who was Jan Brady on the Brady Bunch.

After a while, I got used to the new cast and settled in to enjoy the show.  Unfortunately, I still could not help but compare each musical number to the one performed in the movie. Vanessa Hudgens did a fabulous job in her role of Rizzo, showing just the right amount of hidden vulnerability and hurt under that tough exterior.  She nailed her two big solo numbers–"Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee" and "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" (my favourite Grease song).  Her gutsy live performance was all the more impressive once we learned that her beloved father had just died of cancer the day before. Former Dancing with the Stars cast member Julianne Hough also did well, showing off her vocal skills in the power ballad "Hopelessly Devoted to You".

The one song that was a bit of a disappointment for me was the iconic "Greased Lightning" where the T-Birds fantasize about turning Kenickie's old junker car into a gleaming, "systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic" speed machine that could be used in a drag race against a rival gang.  In the movie version, Travolta's Danny Zuko was sexy and sensual, channeling Elvis Presley with his gyrating hips and crotch-grabbing.  Tveit's performance in the live musical was energetic enough but lacked the erotic, raw animal-magnetism that Travolta's exuded.  Maybe it was because he has such long arms, but the kung-fu like moves that Tveit was making while standing on the car reminded me of a chicken flapping its wings.

The musical's version of Greased Lightning provided many examples of a new verb that I just learned - to bowdlerize.  Named after Dr. T. Bowdler who decided to publish an edition of Shakespeare without any sexual references or double-entendres, to bowdlerize means to edit out the offensive parts of something to the point of making it bland.  If you compare the original lyrics of Greased Lightning to those performed on prime-time television, you can see that the latter has been bowdlerized to death!  In describing the sexual magnetism of the car, the words "The chicks will cream" have been changed to "The chicks will scream".  Provocative references to "getting off my rocks", "she's a real pussy wagon" and "You know that ain't no shit, we'll be getting lots of tit" have all been replaced with more PG13 lyrics. Similarly, at the end of the Sandra Dee song, instead of the line "Fongool, I'm Sandra Dee" which invokes an Italian vulgarity, Rizzo sings "Be Cool, I'm Sandra Dee".

One interaction from the movie, which I thought was really important for authenticity and staying true to character, is missing from Grease Live.  It is the moment during the penultimate song "You're the One that I Want" where Olivia Newton John's re-imaged Sandy struts out confidently in her skin-tight outfit and red heels while John Travolta's Danny goes crazy in reaction.  For a split second, she reveals a look of insecurity and uncertainty of what she should do next.  Marty tells her to toss the cigarette hanging from her mouth and stub it out with her shoe, which she does.  That momentary lapse reveals that Sandy is still the sweet innocent girl behind all that makeup and bravado and gives depth and honesty to her character.  In Grease Live, Julianne Hough's Sandy immediately goes into full vamp and never breaks stride. Maybe this was another attempt to bowdlerize in order to not show Sandy smoking?  Still, the intent of the scene could have been introduced in some other way.  For me, that sweet missing moment from the movie was a major omission

In an exciting added dimension that did not exist for the Sound of Music or Peter Pan Live, Grease Live was actually performed in front of a live audience who acted as extras during crowd scenes (at pep rallys, the school gymnasium, out on the school grounds, and the big dance).  In one of the gymnasium scenes, one of the members of the audience was Vanessa Hudgens' real-life boyfriend Austin Butler, there to give her moral support. On top of that, the scenes were performed across several sound stages and the actors had to either run between them, or be driven by tour carts.  Just before the commercial breaks, we were often shown the cast moving from stage to stage, running by hoards of cheering audience members.

Two musical numbers featured in the original Broadway musical were new to me.  The first song was "Freddy My Love" sung by Marty during the Pink Ladies' slumber party with Sandy, as a love song to her boyfriend who was in the Marines.  As part of the performance, Marty morphs into a lounge performer at a USO Show and performs in front of an audience containing real servicemen in uniform.  This was all done live as she does a quick change from the slumber party nightgown to a red slinky evening gown and back again–an impressive display of staging and choreography.  The second number was "These Magic Changes" sung by Doody strumming a guitar as he strolls through the Burger Joint, and then through the gymnasium during a montage of Danny trying out for different sports teams in order to impress Sandy.  Both songs, which were also on the Grease movie soundtrack, sounded appropriately of the 50s era and fit in nicely with the rest of the music.

A new song "All I Need Is An Angel", written for Carly Rae Jepsen's Frenchy to sing in Grease Live, sounded too much like a modern pop song and did not fit in with the overall vibe of the show at all.  Listening to her sing it, I was taken out of the story and no longer saw the character Frenchy.  Rather, it felt like I was watching one of Jepsen's music videos.  I got the same feeling when former Jonas Brothers boy band member Joe Jonas took the stage with his new group DNCE to act as the band for the dance.  Even though he was singing oldies, it was hard to get over the fact that this was Joe Jonas.  I think the choice of an older band, like Boyz II Men who played Teen Angel would have worked better and felt less anachronistic.

Grease Live does not match my memories of the movie, but judging it solely on its own merit, I think they did a pretty good job.  The show was entertaining and energetic, and for the most part, the musical numbers were well sung and danced.  The reviewers on IMDB obviously agree since it is currently sitting with a 7.8 rating–a great improvement on the first two attempts at live musicals.  This hopefully bodes well for more of these performances in the future.