TV Review: ‘Grease Live!’

TV Review: Hopelessly Devoted to 'Grease
Courtesy of Fox

“Grease Live!” won’t make anyone forget the original film any time soon, but that wasn’t the point. The idea was to cook up a must-see event that got attention on social media and delivered a crisply executed and energetic final product. Thanks to exceptional work from director Thomas Kail and several sterling supporting performances, much of “Grease Live!” was as sweet and tasty as a root beer float.

The weakest links of this otherwise entertaining event were stars Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit, who are terrific dancers but both are about as charisma-challenged as they come as actors.

Tveit has a fine voice, but it’s nearly impossible for any actor to don the leather jacket that John Travolta wore so memorably in the 1978 film, in which Danny Zuko was the chick magnet to end all chick magnets. Whatever its weird gender politics (and they’re plenty weird), the premise of “Grease” is supposed to contrast Danny’s leather-clad machismo and smoldering sweetness with Sandy’s white-bread innocence, but both Hough and Tveit were equally bland in “Grease Live!” When Danny has all the presence of a glass of milk and even the black-clad Sandy of the final scenes exudes all the sexual danger of a church choir director, well, rest assured that those concerned about the “Grease” legacies of Travolta and Olivia Newton-John have nothing to worry about. 

Though it’s hard not to wonder how much better “Grease Live!” would have been with different leads, it was still so solidly and smartly crafted that the dullness of the central duo didn’t matter all that much. Kail and fellow director Alex Rudzinski, a veteran of “Dancing With the Stars,” gave the affair energy and momentum, their cast was game and their commitment never lagged.

The only real dull spots were a few of the less compelling solos (and Hough’s tepid rendition of “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was marred by audio static, one of the broadcast’s few technical problems). Otherwise, by incorporating a live audience, using creative staging and employing energetic camera work, “Grease Live!” frequently boasted an impressive sense of momentum and even spontaneity.

Occasionally it felt a little surreal that the live audience was present — it made sense for people to be sitting in bleachers during the dances and in various crowd scenes, but it was occasionally slightly odd to see them sitting there quietly at other times. But as a whole, the production breezily incorporated backstage moments with “on stage” moments, although the presence of Mario Lopez as both backstage host and performer didn’t quite work and ended up being jarring, in part because his acting skills were lacking.

The upside of the live audience was that it clearly energized the cast to hear applause; it’s not easy to bridge the gap between live television and Broadway, but Kail’s staging generally blended the two modes effectively.

All in all, “Grease Live!” got most of the big things right — the colorful aesthetic, the rip-roaring big dance numbers, the goofy, careening energy. If the central romance was a snooze, well, never mind — that raucous hand jive will linger in the memory much longer. 

In any event, many members of he supporting cast were so terrific that they more than made up for any slow spots. Newcomer Elle McLemore walked away with most of the scenes she appeared in; she gave her character, Patty Simcox, a Tracy Flick-like manic energy. She was simply terrific. 

Ana Gasteyer brought beautifully droll timing to her role as Principal McGee, Keke Palmer and Vanessa Hudgens delivered great renditions of their solo songs, as did Carly Rae Jepsen, whose delightful Frenchy was one of the broadcast’s highlights. Kether Donahue brought infectious joy to every moment she was on screen as Jan, and Boyz II Men were so wonderful as Teen Angel that Fox should think about giving them a variety show right this minute.

Several big set pieces simply sang, most notably the big “Born to Hand Jive” number in the gym, during which Rudzinski’s swooping aesthetic was used to great effect. The concluding numbers — “We Go Together” and “You’re the One that I Want” — were ebullient as well, though apparently part of the final sequence had to be staged indoors. However the cast exited the soundstage near the end of the broadcast, and the production concluded with a party-like atmosphere outside, some local storms having finally moved off for the moment.

TV and live musicals — they go together. If Fox can get the lead casting right in future and snag Kail again, audiences will surely be hopelessly devoted to the network’s next live endeavor.

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  1. jay says:

    well sir variety..)) leading singers performances were great they sung better then Travolta and John and it should be..charisma might missing but singing fills that gap..very good job and more entertaining then Grease 1

  2. Julia weber says:

    I wasn’t happy they changed where she was from England they make utah look boring and our mountains rock. I noticed they changed a few scenes. I loved the dancing in movie. I admit I would’ve like them to not talk about sex so much that was the problem with grease 1 and 2 movies. I seen it on stage in high school where it was better. I wish they would make a grease for teens like hair spray was so aswume and exciting, loved high school musical their acting was better then grease live. I loved the singing and the bar scene with girl with pink hair wasn’t nearly as good as the movie. The dancing and acting were bland but the singing was great just not as good as the old grease movie.

  3. Sarah says:

    Did Maureen Ryan even watch the show? Her opinions seemed completely biased. It appears to me that she must have had her mind already made up about the actors before watching it. I could not disagree more. They were excellent. I thoroughly enjoyed it…more than once.

  4. Jennie says:

    Waste of my time to watch. I loved the original. Somethings should not be messed with and Grease is one of them. They need to bury this so no one else has to be punished by watching it.

  5. Lisa says:

    This review is a bit harsh on the leads… On the contrary I think both Aaron and Julianne were excellent, especially as the show progresses, they are sweet and charming together. They’re not John and Olivia, and don’t have to be them, as this musical has been played by many actors on stage in many productions all over the world. And if I’m not mistaken, this version of Grease did aim to develop the roles of the supporting cast (they are all fantastic), and the story as to accept/become what they want to be, rather than center on the leads’ romance. All in all, I love Grease Live…All the cast members worked so hard – singing, dancing, acting while blocking for the multiple cameras, live, with no retakes, and it pays off. A treat for us. Hats off to all the superb cast, creators and crew.

  6. NanaJuJu says:

    It seems like Ms Ryan wrote this review before she even saw the show! Hard to believe we watched the same show. I am a big fan of the original Grease, and I thought these kids did a GREAT job!! I wonder if John or Olivia could have done such a great job doing it live as these talented singers/actors did. Kudos to Aaron, Julianne, Vanessa and the rest of the cast for a truly enjoyable evening. And a shout out to Jordan Fisher for great song as well.

  7. Lo says:

    Forgot to mention, all the singing was like listening to cats screeching. Don’t know who was singing the grease theme in beginning, but I liked her voice. Americas got talent? After seeing this, people outside our country will say, ‘no one in America has talent. ‘

  8. Lo says:

    Vanessa Hudgens performance was lacking. The whole ‘episode’ was awful. No one could act. Frenchy-Carly was great, others were droll. This was sad and I’m glad I didn’t sit through the whole thing. In the film adaption, you knew who was who. Couldn’t tell who was Danny or distinguish the T-Birds. Like I said, all empty.

  9. Bethany says:

    Kind of an inaccurate review, if you ask me. Sure, the two leads may not have had the same chemistry or energy as Travolta and Newton-John, but who is going to recreate that? It can’t be done.
    To refer to Hough’s singing of “Hopelessly Devoted To You” as a “tepid rendition” is complete crap. She was right on key, belting the strongest parts of the song while sitting, which is terribly hard to do and sound as good as she did! She conquered that song.
    In actuality, the worst part of the show was Carly Rae Jepsen’s seen alone in the diner. Her solo was performed so nasal, it was almost cringing to listen to. This review boasted her performance, maybe we weren’t watching the same “Grease Live!” It was pretty rough.
    Vanessa Hudgens was incredible as Rizzo! Her solo song was perfectly performed. I never would have thought she’d fill that role so competently.
    I agree with parts of the above review, but just had to put in my two cents. Some cast members didn’t deserve the ridicule, and others were praised undeservingly.
    All in all, great rendition of this classic movie/musical! I’m sure I will be watching it a few more times!

  10. Alice J says:

    I loved Grease Live. It was brilliant to watch, dazzling in its production and Aaron Tveit is a superstar in the making. As for all those comparisons to John Travolta, couple of things: 1. Travolta was born in 1954 and Grease is based in 1958. He was/knew characters like Danny. 2. Travolta’s Danny was not very bright so don’t know how much acting there was. 3. Aaron Tveit and the rest of this cast was much more pleasing to the eye and Tveit’s voice has a clarity to it that was refreshing to hear in this age of overproduced music. 4. The brilliance of diversifying the cast without making a big deal of it — as it should be. 4. The set design for Grease Live was beyond amazing and has set the bar so high, not sure many movies, tv shows or broadway plays come close to it.

  11. Mary says:

    Who is Robert O’Dell? Anyone who criticizes the show seems to get an immediate reply from this guy.

  12. Randy Stevens says:

    It was clear from the opening number that this was “Grease – not so Live!”. Having the actors poorly lip-sync to a sound track does not make for a live musical. This was a rip off!

  13. Marj says:

    Admit to being a fan of Aaron Tviet, and thought his Danny a more natural and human interpretation than Travolta’s broadly drawn caricature. This production needs to be appreciated for its own successes and challenges.

  14. JERRY says:

    THREE HOURS OF PURE ENTERTAINMENT….

  15. danette says:

    I thought the Grease live on Fox was amazing!! They did a great job! The first live show I watched and will watch in the future!! They are were so talented and I am so glad I recorded it watch again!

  16. Doreen says:

    Completely dissgree. I thought all of their performances were stellar and actually was pleasantly surprised about how wonderful Julianne Hough’s performance was. I thought she did a marvelous job at sounding so innocent. She portrayed someone so opposite to her real personality which is the reason I now see her as a very good actress. I think you should rewatch the dvr’d show. This time actually watch it.

  17. Richard Ross says:

    Why compare it to the film because long before the film there was the Broadway show.

  18. barth says:

    Aaron Tveit was just fantastic! So much charisma!

  19. Bob Ford says:

    This is exactly why performers should NOT take reviews to heart. The performers in this production were fantastic. It’s not the same type of production the movie was and that has to be considered. All of the dancing, singing, acting, and even logistics it took was incredible. This is especially true in a live setting that cannot be cut or have retakes. While Aaron could not quite hit the high notes Travolta did, his voice was terrific. Julianne’s singing was even better than Olivia Newton John’s. I commend all of the actor’s in the production. Julianne deserves all of the lauds and awards the industry has to offer. Variety, you blew it on this one.

  20. Sherry Devine says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this show. I do nor believe it should be compared so much to the original. In my opinion, Julianne and Aaron did a fantastic job, especially being a live performance.
    Shame on reviewers like you who would rather put down those hard working actors who made this piece exciting.

    • Edyie says:

      I agree 100 % – both the 1978 original and “Grease 2016” are terrific in their own right. After hearing Olivia Newton John sing, “Hopelessly Devoted” in several different performances, spanning decades, I see Juliana Hough’s performance equal to ONJ on any night. This is especially true in view of its being a live performance. ONJ’s 1978 version that is stuck in the heads of professional reviewers was studio-clean and iconic. Even ONJ can never repeat that exact performance. Juliana Hough’s dancing was far superior to ONJ’s – most reviewers agree on that! The logistics of making this live production happen, from labor unions to solos must’ve been mind-bending at times! Bravo to the outstanding cast, crew and production co. for this updated version of Grease. I see Emmy’s in your future!

  21. Ron M says:

    Wow, would love to see Maureen sing, dance and act LIVE in front of millions of viewers! I thought both leads did a great job – and Julianne was fantastic and eerily similar to Olivia Newton John. I think the critic relies too much on a favorable memory of the original, and the fact that one allowed for multiple takes and not a ‘one and done’, then a sprint to the next scene. Lighten up Mo.

  22. Katt says:

    This ‘critic’ is indeed very critical and unfairly so. I loved the movie, but was totally entertained with this live performance. I Thought Julianne and Aaron were great in their parts and their singing was so enjoyable! (Did I mention they are so cute?) Vanessa did a wonderful job as well. I will watch the recording over and over!

  23. Comparing a movie to a live performance is idiotic. Grease live was a phenomenal achievement and if this reviewer doesn’t recognize that she’s in the wrong line of work.

  24. Robert Beckson says:

    Julianne Hough was spot-on as Sandy, and I enjoyed Aaron Tveit’s Danny much more than the overacted caricature John Travolta delivered in 1978. I always thought he was the weakest link in that movie.

    • R Dresden12 says:

      Disagree. Aaron Tveit singing and acting was lackluster. Didn’t come close to capturing the energy of Travolta’s original performance. Hough did a great job though!

      • Sarah says:

        Disagree. Aaron Tveit’s singing was FAR BETTER than Travolta’s singing. There is no question. Travolta’s singing wasn’t even live and still was not good. I agree that Hough did a great job.

  25. T.J. Jackson says:

    To compare a movie to a live production is like comparing apples to oranges. A movie has the luxury of multiple takes, unlike a stage production. As far as the two leads I enjoyed Miss Hough’s and Mr. Tviet’s performance over Miss Newton-John and Mr. Travolta. I saw the movie when it first came out as I am of the same age group as Mr. Travolta and Miss Newton-John (think “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Xanadu”). Fox’s “Grease Live” is the “word”.

  26. August Tarasi says:

    Ms Ryan’s review pointed clearly that she and I watched different Grease Live productions. I agree that the new “Danny” had such a high bar to hit that falling short wasn’t all that bad. But, Julianne Hough’s “Sandy” was so spot on that “Sandy” took on a new dimension. Her voice was excellent and her interpretation of “Totally Devoted” was extraordinary with vocalizes toons which were virtually perfect. I think Ms Ryan should also remember that this rendition was “LIVE” which does not allow the principals the luxury of “Take 2”.
    Gus Tarasi, Daytona Beach, FL

    • Rod says:

      Gus, well said! This reviewer doesn’t have the gravitas to review a junior high school musical let alone a professional production. It’s clear she doesn’t know anything (and never has).

  27. Rod Holi says:

    This reviewer is a hack (in the old meaning of the word). She found the leads to be bad (or terrible) but enjoyed their singing and dancing? Hello? It’s a musical, not King Lear! Ms. Ryan has no technical sense and I think she is woefully under-qualified to be a reviewer for a prestigious paper. I’m reminded of the lyrics to the opening act of one of the Tony Awards shows with refers to; Those bitter, lonely malcontents who write the reviews.” Never has that line been more appropriate.

  28. Neal says:

    Beautifully choreographed dance numbers couldn’t make up for mostly weak vocal performances, though as a whole it was a good effort for all involved. Let’s hope FOX learned from this, and their next Live special will be…well, special. And let’s get back to capturing the ‘feel’ of a live Broadway Musical performance by doing what NBC has done; that is, keep the action on one stage.

  29. Nanette Rugg Ryan says:

    I am in complete agreement with Ms. Ryan’s review. ( no I am not a relative). Thankfully I was able to erase the horrible memory with the Perfection of ” Downton Abbey “. Had Danny’s character been played by someone with more presence , he might have saved Ms. Hough milktoast performance.

  30. Amy says:

    I thought Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit did an amazing job as Sandy and Danny. She totally looked the part and sounded the part – her solos were spot on! Not sure what this reviewer was watching.

  31. I add comments very infrequently but I felt compelled to do so this time. After a fairly disastrous Sound of Music, a dull as dishwater Peter Pan, and a better Wiz Live, which was only hurt by the fact that it’s such a middling musical, I felt they finally got it right with Grease. I do agree that Hough and Tveit were the weak links, but that’s only because they were surrounded by a group of outstanding triple threats: terrific actors/singers/dancers. But more important, who is Maureen Ryan and how on earth did she get her job as “chief tv critic”? The mere fact that she keeps comparing the production and performers to the film, when it was clearly based on the original Broadway musical, albeit with some elements of the film added along with original material, should disqualify her from future critiquing. Shockingly incompetent.

  32. Deb Meyer says:

    Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit gave fantastic, dynamic and convincing performances as Sandy and Danny in Grease Live! They were perfectly cast.
    I was amazed and delighted throughout the whole performance.
    It’s a wonder to me how someone like Maureen Ryan “a professional” can be so off base!!!!

  33. I think that Julianne did a fine job – she’s younger than ONJ was when she did the film – and boy can she dance–

  34. Joy McBride says:

    Fox could have looked the planet over and not found another actress that could have played Sandy better. Granted I was not crazy about the Danny actor but you are totally wrong on Julianne. She is a total triple threat. She dances, sings, and acts. Even Olivia Newton John said she was perfect for the part.

  35. Mary says:

    The leads were casted correctly…. They not copy cats and that was nice.

  36. Tara Krebs says:

    You were way to harsh on Tveit and Hough. They were great! The show as a whole was awesome!

  37. Fox…we loved your production of Grease. Had a little problem with sound on one of the songs, but it cleared up pretty quick. The lead gal was just spectacular!! Your casting for everyone was wonderful. I hope you do more live musicals Fox. Thanks to everyone who put in the hard work for making it a success.

  38. Gage says:

    I thought this was horrible. Can’t believe these gushing “reviews”. Acting was soooooo stiff and wooden. Never “felt” a connection with the characters. Singing trully lacked range, basically very vanilla…..yawn.

  39. Laura says:

    I was disappointed in Kenickie. He shouldn’t be short and blend in with the other silly Tbird guys. Danny and Kenickie were the two cool guys. I just didn’t like that this one just blended in with the others and didn’t stand out with Danny

    • luce says:

      So agree Kenickie should have stood out more. Couldn’t believe they chose someone so short. It was hard to distinguish them except for the t-bird holding the guitar.

  40. Jon Daly says:

    the leads were very good. they weren’t as good as Travolta and Newton John, but those two didn’t perform it live, either.

    i understand, though, that as a critic, you have to find something to criticize.

  41. MCK says:

    After reading this review, I wonder if we watched the same show? Tepid rendition of HDTY? Hough and Tveit weakest links? Are you freaking kidding me? Hough did an awesome job as the tepid “Sandy” and Tveit brought charisma and believability to an role that is based on machismo. Go back to school, you need to re-learn how to review! It was all round great, entertaining TV, groundbreaking for the format and style. Variety was only one of two negative reviews. You screwed up! Rydell Forever!

  42. I guess you didn’t watch the same production I did. There was no acting; there was no connection between characters. The dancing was good but the singing was only adequate some of the time. “Beauty School Dropout” was horrific.The running back and forth between sets disposed of any “willing suspension of disbelief,” as did the ‘cute’ little banter of Mario Lopez. Thank God for Netflix!

  43. ellen says:

    Shawna, I guess you have never seen the stage musical.
    I had no problem with Marty being black. Keke was just the wrong, very wrong actress. Every review that praises her performance shocks me.

  44. tim Martin says:

    Were Boys 2 Men SUPPOSED to be singing to their feet all through that song? They were slow, fat, inarticulate and bad casting—and lousy dancers. Director should have gotten a few of the Jersey Boys to deftly seranade the dropout right into her beautiful face.

    • Mr Model says:

      I love B2M. But I really agree with you. They were terrible. Their romantic continuations of warbling notes completely drowned out the lyrics. The scene was pointless. It should have been someone with a hard sarcastic voice as well as look. Elton John comes to mind, although I doubt he would have done this film. Even rejecting this role he would have been cuttingly bitterly sarcastic, or, completely perfect for the part.

  45. Shawna says:

    Ok, I guess I am the only one who is going to say it. I thought the casting was terrible. Aaron is NO Danny and Marty is now black? What is up with always having to be politically/socially correct? Schools were not integrated until the 60’s and this is supposed to be in the fifties. And before you say it, I know they passed into law that the schools were to be integrated but it didn’t actually happen until the 60’s. There definitely wasn’t interracial dating going on at the time that was so public and accepted by people.

    What is up with that short cheerleading skirt Sandy wore for tryouts? No way were they that short back then.

    Hated they softened Greased Lightning. They are supposed to be bad boys,

    Hated that Hopelessly devoted was in the wrong part of the movie.

    Eugene and Patty together? Why? Patty ended up with the jock Sandy dated and the T-Birds were way to cool to let a nerd like Eugene in the T-Birds. They spent their time picking on him for fun.

    If they wanted to update it to todays times then it shouldn’t have been set in the fifties.

    Just my opinion. I’m sure people are going to berate me for it but I don’t care. This movie was instumental to me and I felt it was perfect the way it was. When is Hollywood going to stop ruining classics because they want to make them more sensitive for today’s times?

    • Lo says:

      Beautifully put, Shauna. I think people are getting dumber if they thought this was a good production.

    • Mr Model says:

      I enjoyed the production, but kept remarking how there weren’t any black kids in a white high school back in 1959. It was kind of distracting due to it being so unreal. I made the point earlier, it would be like Hollywood using a white actor to play Michael Jackson. Oh yeah, they are…..

    • Chris says:

      As we were watching it my high school kids said I thought it was suppose to be Grease? What’s with all the changes? You can’t make changes just to be correct they have to be factual as well.

  46. Zachary says:

    When did Maureen get a bfa in musical theatre? While Ms. Ryan may understand the industry of television she is out of her depth in the world of musical theatre.

  47. Wayne Jacobs says:

    Funny but there were only two sources which gave “Grease Live” a lukewarm review – Variety and NYT. All the rest had absolute glowing comments : “breathtaking,” “innovative,” “a whole new genre,” etc.

    • breadalbane says:

      I agree. It IS odd that only two publications in the US able to discern that this was a production worthy of a lukewarm review.

  48. SeenFromHere says:

    Grease live was a real success. Julianne Hough was a perfect Sandy, particularly as the innocent. Her transition to glam at the end expressed too much finesse which made her character less believable. Still, JH’s character portrayal carried the show for me. Aaron as Danny just didn’t carry that sexy seduction that Travolta oozed. Travolta is still “Danny” and the real star of Grease. Stockard Channing remains Betty too. Vanessa was good, but lIke Aaron, her character’s nuanced conflict of real wildness exaggerated for acceptance was only thinly sent home. Jepson was adorable, as was the entire cast. Unfortunately, whoever played the adm assistant Blanche was over-acting to the point of annoying distraction. Her representation would have been great on SNL, but she was out of step with the rest of the production. Overall, Grease Live set a new bar for TV musical drama.

  49. Michael Agresta says:

    Maureen Ryan your looking at through old eyes. If you were 18 you would think they were great. 12.2 million and counting would disagree with you.

    • Ryan Smith says:

      Excuse me but i’m 19 and happen to agree that it was badly cast, distastefully updated, and played with to a point where the past actors should be ashamed of it. The setting, the songs, the new added material and base character changes were unacceptable. Boys to men did a rendition of “Beauty school dropout” that wasn’t reminiscent of the 50’s, changing the place of “hopelessly devoted to you” lost the story line of Frenchy giving Sandy the paper to wright a note on. The story was changed in so many places, songs added to effect the mood and audience thought process that I’m sorry to say it because i had high hopes for it, but they flopped hard on this one.

  50. LILLIAN says:

    I enjoyed the show, but I agree that Vanessa Hudgins was awesome in her portrayal of Rizzo;. Her singing took me by surprise so she was really,really great considering the fact that her dad had passed away. Juianne was a perfect choice to play Sandy looks wise, but I felt her performance was overshadowed by supporting cast. She seemed to be more in the background than front and center. Danny’s character was totally unbelievable and left me flat. Otherwise, Fox did a good job incorporating different sets.

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