Eerie question: What do The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, The Wiz Live!, and Grease Live! have in common? Eerier answer: They are all good. Seriously. They're glitzy live productions with some tepid acting (particularly in the case of The Sound of Music), but you tend to forgive their awkward moments because the live gimmick is, above all else, cute. It's like watching expensive, well-rehearsed high school theater. And that's a good thing. And it makes you miss high school theater.
Fox's Grease Live!, which aired live on the East Coast on Sunday night, added nothing to what we already know of the classic 1978 movie musical (aside from a limp new ballad chirped by a pleasant-enough Carly Rae Jepsen), but it had all the infectiousness and emoji-big smiles you need from three hours of live musical entertainment. No one was begging for Grease to be stretched to the length of The Wolf of Wall Street, but with the vocal power of Aaron Tveit and the pluck of Julianne Hough filling the roles of Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson, it was somehow a palatable 180-minute epic.
Fox used subtle touches to make Grease Live! feel inventive around the edges: One of the more brilliant casting decisions was Ana Gasteyer, a live TV veteran of SNL, who gave it her hammy all in Eve Arden's old role of Principal McGee. Keke Palmer turned up the rather innocuous role of Marty, once inhabited by Dinah Manoff, with saucy verve. And Didi Conn, the original Frenchie, found a perfect role as a sympathetic diner waitress. Those advancements kept the audience aware of the savvy casting brains behind the camera, but Grease Live! will be remembered as a success thanks to its directorial achievement and the utter commitment of its two leads.
Something about Grease Live! felt huger than all three of the recent live TV musicals. Maybe it was the sheer amount of sets (The gymnasium alone was gigantic, and I think I full-on gawked at the carnival at show's end), but Tveit, Hough, Vanessa Hudgens as Rizzo flat-out did more work than anyone in Peter Pan or The Sound of Music. Because Grease is so familiar as a soundtrack, it's easy to forget it's a never-ending blitz of choreography. For three hours, Tveit and Hough trilled flawlessly and danced hard, which is fitting for two performers who've dazzled as live entertainers for years now.
And this brings us to the utter highpoint of the show, which had nothing to do with lighting cues, mega-budget spectacle, or retro kitsch: Julianne Hough took to “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” a staple of Grease and any respectable Olivia Newton-John hits compilation, with a fiery hurt that brought the show to an emotional climax. In some respects it was a frame-for-frame remake of ONJ's original performance: Hough sauntered around a porch and sang to the sky, but her control and commitment obliterated any chance of a comparison and stood out as its own poignant, self-possessed moment.
It's worthless to ask whether Grease Live! was better than its source movie. Was The Sound of Music Live! better than The Sound of Music? Of course not, but it's endearing in all of its limitations and awareness of those limitations. Grease Live! may have been a longish take on the melodrama at Rydell, but its confidence, scope, and starpower — toplined by a perfect Sandy Olsson — made it bigger, bolder, and radder than anyone could've predicted.