Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Fa …. a long, long way to run: The Sound of Music Live! (2013 NBC event)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A lot of ink (and, one might argue, blood) has been spilled in the intervening days since The Sound of Music Live! starring country/pop superstar and American Idol Carrie Underwood reaffirmed NBC as a destination for “Must See TV.”

It’s taken me a bit of time (for once) to digest all of my thoughts – less about the show and more about the absurd level of snotty, glib, social-media fueled schadenfreude it seemed to generate.

Just when I thought this telecast (which I enjoyed by the way – more on that in a moment) would be another casualty of America’s silly “culture wars,” along came news that it was one of the most highly viewed shows in recent memory.

The chief driver of controversy and ratings? Ms. Underwood herself, who somehow has become as big a cultural lightning rod as my beloved Miley.

Seriously, watching my Facebook feed Thursday night, I found it fascinating that so many of my “Red State” friends, for whom the Wal-Mart sponsored production’s selection of Underwood seemed targeted, dug in their heels and proclaimed they didn’t like “different” and “it wasn’t like the movie” and “how dare they replace Julie Andrews” (whom I should add herself replaced Mary Martin from the stage show). Conversely, my “Blue State” friends all saw this as some Tea Party conspiracy to send Broadway to the Dark Ages and “bring Hee-Haw to high culture.” (And, yeah, they also didn’t like that is wasn’t Julie Andrews. There goes Underwood, finally bringing this country together again!)

Really? Really, folks? Just unclench and enjoy that someone is trying something new –  ironic, I know, given that this particular show is a pretty musty, overdone piece of musical theatre malarkey, but just go with me here.

I applaud producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron for attempting – and succeeding – at the herculean task of getting a three hour, live musical performed, mostly without a hitch, on prime time television to blockbuster viewership. Last time that happened? Fifty years ago with another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical – Cinderella – which I might also add committed the “sacrilege” of casting a “hot young thing” in place of another actress who had originated the role (albeit in an earlier TV version). Guess who? Yup, Julie Andrews was “replaced” by Lesley Ann Warren, who was not only a bit dodgy as an actress but not that remarkable a vocalist either.

Zadan and Meron have pretty much led the charge over the past twenty years bringing the American musical into the broader popular consciousness of film and TV. And, yes, one of their gimmicks is creative and unconventional casting that gets them sponsorships, studio green lights, and viewership. Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander and Chynna Phillips in Bye Bye Birdie. Kathy Bates in Annie. Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston in Cinderella. Bette Midler and Cynthia Gibb in Gypsy. Richard Gere and Renee Zellwegger and John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Oscar-winning Chicago. And, yes, John Travolta (and Michelle Pfeiffer) in Hairspray. (NOTE: many of these folks were not necessarily considered musical stars before these productions, but are now.) Would these productions have been artistically “better” with Broadway vets in those roles? Probably. Would these films have gotten made, let alone watched and enjoyed by millions, without these stars? Nope.

And, furthermore, Audrey Hepburn was cast over Andrews in My Fair Lady, the Hollywood penance for this decision in turn landing Andrews Mary Poppins and, I suspect, Sound of Music, which had been written for Broadway for Mary Martin (yes, JR Ewing’s mom who made a name among American viewers for playing a boy – Peter Pan). And should Barbra Streisand have played the lead in the film Hello Dolly! or Lucille Ball Mame? And don’t even get me started on Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (the latter of whom is cuter in the role than people give credit). And I’m not sure I was that nuts about Beyonce in Dreamgirls, though I did adore another American Idol – Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson – for her contributions to that film.

What’s my point – other than showing off all the useless and opinionated knowledge I carry around in my noggin? I’m not quite sure, other than everyone chill the freak out!

How was the show? It was fine – not revelatory but not a train wreck either. Quite the contrary. Yes, Underwood is not an actress, but she is a presence with a pleasant personality and a marvelous voice – all of which seemed to suit the rather bland, nun-lite role of Maria, if you ask me. (I kept thinking of Gwen Stefani the whole time for some reason – they vaguely resemble each other and I also love this riff by Stefani on “The Lonely Goatherd” – truly, check it out!)

Before I get labeled an Underwood apologist, let me say I have always been rather neutral about her. I hate American Idol. I love that she’s a vegan and an animal rights activist, vocally opposed to factory farming and ag gag bills. I find her preening, showy religiosity annoying – yes, we get it – you’re so “blessed.” I adore that she is a social progessive who believes in equal rights for all, including ardent support for gay marriageI do not like country music (unless it’s poppy stuff like Shania or Taylor). I enjoy Underwood more when she’s singing about smashing a cheating boyfriend’s car than when she’s imploring for “Jesus to take the wheel.” (She does seem to sing about motor vehicles a lot, come to think of it.)

The producers wisely surrounded Underwood with a cast of pros (True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer’s rigid and kinda dull take on Captain Von Trapp notwithstanding). Audra McDonald as Mother Abbess and Laura Benanti as the Baroness were the absolute rock star standouts of the night. I hate “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” but I was in tears from McDonald’s rendition. And Benanti was a sparkling delight, humanizing what could have been a villainous turn. She has a perfect light yet intelligent touch for this kind of production – I hope they do more with her. The kids were all fine and avoided the cloying, insufferable trap into which so many productions can fall. Newcomer Michael Campayno was marvelous in the tricky role of turncoat boyfriend Rolf.

The set design was sublime – beautifully detailed but consciously theatrical. And I got a visceral thrill when the cast would glide from one locale to another through an open door or a raised curtain, most notably when the family leaves their home for the climactic Nazi rally.

My criticism of the evening? Those d*mn creepy Wal-Mart ads that seemed designed to appeal to some modern, overpopulated, Midwestern yuppie family that buys too much crap and communicates in dull, cutesy quips via their cellular devices when they are one. room. away. from each other. Argh!

Why do people love this musical? And feel so fiercely protective of it? I’m not quite sure – there are much better shows out there, including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s many other offerings. There is a strange princess element – young nun finding love with a stodgy rich man in a castle. An inversion of the Beauty and the Beast tale? Or is it the nightmare panic that the Nazi element offers, including the pulse-pounding (and clever) escape from that oppressive regime while singing the oddly creepy “So Long, Farewell.” Not sure, but clearly a lot of folks love this darn story, so bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era.

Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.