Review

'Grease: Live' is an exuberant, technically audacious performance

Following NBC into the musical-theater as live television event/stunt business, Fox put up a production of "Grease" on Sunday night, filling it with young-ish singing stars, many with roots in the Disney/Nickelodeon industrial-pop complex that is modern kids' television.

Starring Aaron Tveit, whose career encompasses Broadway, "Gossip Girl" and "Graceland," and "Dancing With the Stars" star Julianne Hough, it was an exuberant, technically audacious staging of a work that ads in the run-up were pleased to call "America's favorite musical."

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This is possibly so, if such a thing can be measured, though in a field that includes "Guys and Dolls," "Pal Joey," "Oklahoma!" "A Little Night Music," "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Rent," not to mention the three musicals mounted by NBC — "The Sound of Music," "Peter Pan" and "The Wiz" — it's hardly its best. This does not seem to have gotten in its way.

Arriving on Broadway in 1972 on a wave of 1950s nostalgia that also carried in Sha Na Na, "American Graffiti" and "Happy Days" and kept alive through the 1978 film and innumerable school and community stagings, "Grease" is now the memory of a memory, whose original jokes and references — Rydell High, anybody? — are nowadays in need of annotation.

As is the common practice even on the Broadway stage, the play was retrofitted to closely follow the movie made from it, scene for scene, line by line, managing even to suggest the montage of Danny trying out for different sports and (with limited success) a climactic drag race.

It also included songs written for the film, with an eye on the charts — the "Grease" theme, "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and "You're the One That I Want," in which Hough's Sandy is dressed identically to Olivia Newton-John's, in teased hair and a shiny black catsuit. At the same time, a few songs cut for the movie were added back in, and a new one added — the tonally out-of-sync "All I Need Is an Angel" for Carly Rae Jepsen's Frenchy — to better serve a cast long on strong singers, something you can't say of the film. And to get another single out there.

Also in the cast were KeKe Palmer as Pink Lady Marty; Vanessa Hudgens, sometimes seeming to channel Rita Moreno in "West Side Story," as their leader, Rizzo, and whose father died of cancer the night before the broadcast; her performance of "The Worst Thing I Could Do" was all the more effective, as the camera just settled in close and watched her; among the T-Birds, Jordan Fisher's Doody stood out.

Boyz II Men, who sang "Beauty School Dropout"; and Joe Jonas, fronting the band (his own band) at the high school hop, added cameo heat. Stunt cast Eve Plumb (who was Jan Brady), Barry Pearl (Doody in the movie), and the film's Frenchy, Didi Conn, playing against Jepsen's, brought the old into the new. As the principal and the coach, Ana Gasteyer and Wendell Pierce were the show's other significant adults.

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For the record

11:19 a.m.: An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of the group Boyz II Men as Boys II Men.

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Technically, the production, directed by Thomas Kail ("Hamilton") and ranging over two stages and the studio backlot and smartly incorporated the audience into the action, was something of a marvel — and relatively glitch-free — though the camera work, to be cinematic and possibly make the sets look as big as possible, veered uncomfortably, at times nonsensically between lenses and angles.

This did the choreography no favors, especially. It's often the case in modern film musicals that nondancers are made to look like dancers by editing, but the direction here often had the effect of masking the dancing rather than focusing on it.

Robert Cary and Jonathan Tolins' elaborations upon and additions to the original — a string of hookups and breakups and sex jokes on the way to an O. Henry ending in which the greaser letters in track and the good girl goes (a little bit) bad — were often beneficial, enriching or expanding characters or providing better motivations for their actions. There were self-referential jokes as well ("The television audience is pretty forgiving," was one sly interpolation); it is more a showcase for charisma than character.

The production opened and closed out of doors — the tailings of a Southern California thunderstorm did not mar Jessie J's opening blast through Barry Gibb's "Grease" theme — on a backlot that had once seen the filming of "Bye Bye Birdie," an evident influence on this musical, and "The Music Man."

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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