“Grease: Live,” a new kind of theater

We fade in on our main characters, Danny Zuko (Aaron Tveit) and Sandy Young (Julianne Hough) in front of a green screen that’s projecting an ocean. Romantic music swells in the background, and Danny tells Sandy to just think about “what’s happening right now.” The music immediately switches into “Grease is the Word,” and singer Jessie J takes over the show with her energetic rendition. Live audiences cheer in the background throughout the song, which sets the stage for the rest of the three hours of Fox’s energetic, visually stimulating production of “Grease: Live”.

Unlike the other live musicals that television networks have recently put on, such as NBC’S “Peter Pan,” “Grease: Live” had a live audience present for the entirety of the show, which had many pleasantly surprised. The live audience provided more of the authentic “theater-going” experience for at-home viewers than NBC’s productions have, as the silences in between the numbers in “The Sound of Music: Live” or “The Wiz: Live” on NBC are awkward and cause a lethargic lull in an otherwise energetic show.

USA Today deems Fox’s inclusion of live audiences beneficial, as well—for the most part. Critic Robert Bianco writes, “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.” I can’t help but agree with Bianco’s statement here: although having the audiences made the show feel more authentic, at times, the audiences were a bit too loud or excited, and it took away from what was actually occurring in the scene at hand. Overall, I feel that having a live audience truly put the “Live” in “Grease: Live”.

Additionally, I found the integration of the audience members to be clever. Instead of having them sit in chairs off screen, the director of “Grease: Live”, Thomas Kail of Broadway’s “Hamilton”, incorporated them flawlessly into almost every scene. For example, when Sandy auditions for the cheerleading squad, audience members are sitting on the bleachers outside watching her audition, as are the Pink Ladies (Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo, Carly Rae Jepsen as Frenchy, Keke Palmer as Marty Maraschino, and Kether Donohue as Jan) and the rest of the ensemble cast. It almost felt as if the audience is part of the show, which was certainly not unintentional from Kail’s end.

Now, onto the cast. I was pleasantly surprised with everyone in the cast, except for Jepsen. They wrote a new song for her to perform for the show, and it did not go over well. It didn’t fit with the time period of the show or Jepsen’s vocal range, which resulted in an overall slump in the progression of the storyline. Compared to the rest of the casting—which I feel was essentially flawless—I’m surprised that Jepsen was cast as one of the bigger supporting roles in the show.

However, the rest of the group was well-cast and put on an entertaining, energetic rendition of “Grease.” Hough and Tveit, although flat in their acting at times, impressed in their musical numbers with their singing and dancing (which was to be expected from Hough, as she began her career as a dancer). Hudgens, although she’s no Stockard Channing, did a fine job of playing bad girl Betty Rizzo, especially given the fact that her father had died a few hours previous to airing. Palmer captivated audiences with her sweet yet sassy rendition of “Freddy My Love,” and Donohue provided the perfect comedic timing with her Twinkies. The T-Birds also pulled through, with Carlos Pena Vega playing a very convincing and intriguing Kenickie. The rest of the T-Birds (Jordan Fisher as Doody, David Del Rio as Putzie, and Andrew Call as Sonny) were the perfect comedic supporters for Danny; their chemistry was reminiscent of the original “Grease” with John Travolta playing Danny.

The star quality in “Grease: Live” did not disappoint, as Joe Jonas and his band DNCE had a cameo as Jonny Casino and the Gamblers at the school dance, and media personality Mario Lopez played Vince Fontaine, the host of “National Bandstand.” Overall, the combination of television, Broadway, and music stars created a dynamic, lively, and exciting performance so extravagant that it required the use of the entire Warner Bros. lot in California. I was pleased to see that Fox is taking live musicals to the next level, and I’m interested to see how NBC responds with their upcoming production of “Hairspray: Live”.