Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies Is Confection and Camp, But Simply Has Too Much Heart to Hate: Review

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The Pitch: Let’s start with the obvious — these folks had big hoop skirts to fill. Grease is one of the most successful movie-musicals of all time. The 1978 classic had the right people at the right time, coupled with irresistibly catchy songs, memorable set pieces, and one of the most iconic makeover sequences of all time. Has the message — that it’s ok to change yourself for a guy, because high school love most certainly lasts forever — necessarily aged perfectly? No, but Grease has remained a cultural staple to this day.

The new Paramount+ original series, Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, is a prequel set four Rydell High school years ahead of the events depicted in the film. Things begin as four outcasts — Jane (Marisa Davila), Olivia (Cheyenne Wells), Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara), and Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso) — cross paths through the messy turns of fate provided by life in high school and find themselves forming a rebellious girl gang prone to stirring up trouble. The core plot of the episodes shared with critics revolves around Jane running for student council opposite her goody-two-shoes, all-American, Make Rydell Great Again ex, Buddy (Jason Schmidt).

It’s Got (A Bit of) Groove, It’s Got (Some) Meaning: Rise of the Pink Ladies is for the people who love musicals to their very bones — think someone who saw 2007’s Hairspray adaptation and said, “Loved it, but I wish they hadn’t cut ‘Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now.'” Minutes into the pilot, the cast launches into a slightly modernized version of “Grease (Is the Word),” originally sung by Frankie Valli for the opening credits of Grease — the songs from that point forward are frequent, big, highly choreographed, and colorful.

With the count of songs packed in each episode (this writer’s tally averaged at three per hour), they can’t all be winners, and some are outright duds. The best moments are the ones that put the core four Pink Ladies in the spotlight — these young performers are undeniably talented, giving this material their all and then some. Marisa Davila shines in particular during her quintessential “I want” song, and fellow newcomer Cheyenne Wells is commanding as the book-loving but reputation-damaged Olivia.

To that end, all four of the central figures are incredibly talented young performers, with Tricia Fukuhara turning in some wonderfully exasperated, melodramatic line readings as fashion-forward Nancy and Ari Notartomaso stealing scene after scene as the lovable Cynthia. The show wisely keeps the focus on their story rather than trying to shoe-horn in winks at the original, save for the detail that Jane’s younger sister, here known as Fran, grows up to become the character we know as Frenchy. (This, and the introduction of her best friend Betty Rizzo, can be forgiven simply on the basis of how spot-on of a Didi Conn impression the young actress, Madison Lagares, turns in.)

Luck Be a (Pink) Lady: With that being said, the tone of the show is where things get especially rocky. It feels like maybe this story would have worked better if it weren’t connected to such beloved, iconic IP, because Pink Ladies lacks the edge of the original. It offers social justice and empowerment in the vein of the CW Network, a Riverdale-ification of the T-Birds and their girl gang counterparts. The series is clear on its themes — inclusivity, double standards between men and women, racism — but touches on them in decidedly 21st-century ways, and the characters speak and operate as though they are decades away from the 1950s these costumes want us to believe they are existing in, to the point of distraction.


Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies (Paramount+)

Rydell High here seems to be a pleasantly integrated school, and the politics are incredibly inconsistent. Interracial friendships and romantic relationships populate the screen in abundance, and the realities that would have plagued these characters in this time period seemingly aren’t a problem… until they are.

Often serving as the voice of these issues is Hazel, played by Shanel Bailey, a Black student who recently transferred to Rydell and struggles to fit in. But Hazel isn’t introduced until Episode 3, and in general when issues arise, they feel incredibly surface-level, leaving the series in an odd in-between space of sorts.

It feels like the creators should have made a decision: Take the more historically accurate route, or set the show in a 1997 Cinderella-type world where intentionally diverse casting underscores, but doesn’t drive, the plot. The middle ground they landed in doesn’t work, which is a shame when this incredibly talented cast is on hand.

The Verdict: Let’s circle back to the idea that this show might have succeeded had it not been set in the world of Grease at all — at one point, amid shakeups and culture shocks from Rydell’s resident girl gang, Jane declares, “Our mission is to make Rydell fun for everyone.” This was decidedly not the mission of the Pink Ladies led by Stockard Channing’s hard-edged Rizzo, and it feels nothing short of impossible that these two stories are set anywhere close to the same universe.

Perhaps Paramount+ could have had a hit on their hands if they had championed an original, musical-filled, and outright campy series that wasn’t constantly trying on jackets that just don’t fit. And for all its faults, the performances these actors turn in have too much heart to rule out Rise of the Pink Ladies entirely. Every last person onscreen is performing to the balcony, delightfully theatrical and inviting. Again, the plot details might not be the most addicting, but watching the show sometimes evokes the feelings of being at a community production. You just can’t help but want to see them succeed.

Where to Watch: Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies premieres Thursday, April 6th on Paramount+, with new episodes rolling out each Thursday after that.


Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies Is Confection and Camp, But Simply Has Too Much Heart to Hate: Review
Mary Siroky

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