Look, there’s a lot to like Grease: The Rise of the Pink Ladiesbut the question is, does the sum of the parts equal a whole, and really, why are we creating a whole?
Based on timeless material from Broadway writers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, Paramount+’s new musical series certainly has a lot to live up to. Yet, in the hands of a talented cast and some deft creatives, including director Alethea Jones and choreographer Jamal Sims, it certainly does its best.
Set 4 years before the events at Rydell High, the series puts a 2023 lens on a period high school, which is quite the paradox.
The central character is no longer the reserved Sandy, but the unpopular nerdy girl Jane (Marisa Davila) whose family has recently moved to the area. When the series begins, she’s getting hot and smoking with the cleanest, most popular guy in school, Buddy (Jason Schmidt). As the action opens to a full run into the musical number of Fat – brilliantly staged by all involved – we seem to be in for a full-throttle, smooth-backed show.
However the theme of the episode, fueled by dirty rumors among gossiping classmates, is that Jane let Buddy have his way with her, which in 1954 is a decidedly no-no. While Buddy is happy to trade the myth that he’s a stud, Jane just brings shame (and possibly STDs) upon herself.
“After all, a girl’s reputation is all she has,” Asst insists. Principal McGee (the amazing Jackie Hoffman).
Feeling further marginalized, Jane will find solace in other “misfits,” including fire-breathing Latina Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells), aspiring fashion designer Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara), and tomboyish T-Bird wannabe Cynthia (energetic Ari Notartomaso). .
As the school election approaches and Buddy runs for School Captain, Jane will have to dig deep to assert herself with a pioneering girl power.
Scattered throughout are musical numbers set in school buildings, playgrounds, houses and garages, heck there’s even a Greased Lightning clone like “New Cool” -I guess you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t?
Other notable characters are charming T-Bird leader Richie (Johnathan Nieves) and popular girl Susan (Madison Thompson). All of them are triple threat, acting, singing and dancing up a storm in elaborate production numbers. Hats off to the costume and set departments too, with a screen full of primary colors, which lends itself to fictional scenes, even if they consistently look like soundstages rather than real locations.
There is also a lot of diversity with Latino and Asian performers, cheerleaders and hints of LGBT characters initially on the fringes. The show’s themes of equality and staying true to oneself were barely a whisper in the original Fat (which was recently banned from a high school for its depiction of female characters). It requires a leap of faith on the viewer’s part to overlook how the two works will meet in the middle, but the heart of this show is so in the right place, it’s not hard to do.
What is a little more challenging is the score, which is not up to par Fat first name.
These songs, under the direction of musical director Jack Tranter (the songs by Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez went uncredited), don’t do enough to build character and feel like they belong on an Ariana Grande album. Since the arm in arm misfits were also the heart of the memorable JoyI find myself wondering why this series has tried to justify its existence.
But damn it’s so hard to resist their energy, maybe I shouldn’t resist?
Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies premieres Friday on Paramount+