Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies review: Rydell's girl gang gets an uneven origin story

In the approximately 40 kabillion times that I've seen the classic 1978 movie musical Grease, it never once occurred to me to consider the formation of the Pink Ladies — Rydell High's sole girl gang — as a radical feminist act. (Perhaps the message got lost in the decidedly un-feminist ending of the movie and Broadway show: Hey girls! Here's a fool-proof trick for keeping your man: Change everything about yourself!) But in retrospect, the Pink Ladies did represent a gender-norms disruption in the 1950s, a time when the loftiest goal a teenage girl could reach was having a football star drape his letterman jacket over her shoulders.

Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, the new musical prequel from showrunner Annabel Oakes (Atypical, Minx), aims to tell the patriarchy-busting origin story of Rydell's pink-jacketed rebels. It's an intriguing entry point into the universe created by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey back in 1971, and one that is rich with thoughtful storytelling potential. When Rise of the Pink Ladies leans in to this vision of the protagonists as equal-rights innovators, it sings. Based on the first half of the 10-episode season, however, that message is too often muffled by a surplus of mostly forgettable music, overly long episodes, and lukewarm central love stories.

Jason Schmidt as Buddy, Marisa Davila as Jane Facciano, Ari Notartomaso as Cynthia Zdunowski, Shanel Bailey as Hazel, Tricia Fukuhara as Nancy Nakagawa, Alexis Sides as Potato and Cheyenne Wells as Olivia Valdovinos in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies: "So this is Rydell" EP #103 streaming on Paramount +, 2022. Photo Credit: Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+

Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+ Jason Schmidt, Marisa Davila, Ari Notartomaso, Shanel Bailey, Tricia Fukuhara, Alexis Sides and Cheyenne Wells in 'Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies'

The year is 1954, and bespectacled bookworm Jane Facciano (Marisa Davila) is spending the blissful final days of her summer steaming up the windows with handsome jock Buddy (Jason Schmidt). To her surprise, the quarterback asks her to go steady, and Jane enters the school year proudly sporting his red-and-white Rydell Rangers jacket. Piqued, the popular girls — including Buddy's former fling, Susan (Madison Thompson) — target Jane with gossip and reputation-tarnishing innuendo, and her clique-crossing romance with Buddy implodes.

Watching all of this teenage terrorism unfold are three other female untouchables: Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells), whose romantic dalliance with an English teacher (Chris McNally) has made her the Hester Prynne of Rydell High; Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso), a tomboy who's desperate to join the T-Birds, the gang run by Olivia's brother, Richie (Johnathan Nieves); and Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara), an aspiring fashion designer who has no interest in boys. When Jane decides to run against Buddy for student council president, Olivia, Cynthia, and Nancy team up with her to upend Rydell's punitive social order. "No more teenage tears/Over ugly outerwear," the trio sings in "Different This Year," one of a handful of standout original songs from executive music producer Justin Tranter.

The premiere, "We're Gonna Rule the School," is stuffed with so many Easter eggs and other callbacks to the movie — from the dialogue ("This isn't the end?" "Of course not, this is only the beginning.") to the choreography to the costumes — it's distracting and a little desperate. Jane's little sister turns out to be nicknamed "Frenchy," and Madison Elizabeth Lagares, the charming young actress who plays her, delivers her lines in a solid approximation of Didi Conn's squeaky lilt. (A tween Betty Rizzo, played by Emma Shannon, makes a perfunctory appearance, too.)

The relentless homages taper off a bit after that, and Pink Ladies begins to strut with a bit more confidence. The first half of the season builds up to the student council election, contrasting Jane's plans to create "a new kind of Rydell" that's "fun for everyone" with Buddy's platform, which centers on "tradition" and "honoring the past." Pink Ladies is at its best when it focuses on the sexism and misogyny that's inherent in that "tradition," as Jane struggles to rehab her reputation as a "deviant" while Buddy — her alleged partner in sexual crime — suffers nary a smudge on his public image. When the football jocks get handsy with their dates and try to spike the punch at a party, Nancy urges her girlfriends not to give away so much of their power. "Imagine not having to lower your voice/Imagine forgetting your posture and poise/Imagine being more than just trophy and toys," she sings in the wistful, wonderfully catchy "A World Without Boys."

The prequel presents a version of the Grease universe that is far more diverse than the ethnically homogenous and heteronormative original. Unlike some multi-cultural IP refreshes, though, Pink Ladies doesn't ignore the existence of racism. Jane's mom, Kitty (Vivian Lamolli), is Puerto Rican, a fact she hides from her bigoted neighbors, who assume she's a dark-skinned Italian. Rival candidates Jane and Buddy clash over having Rydell's Fall Ball at the town's elitist, exclusionary Athletic Club. "I've got a Mexican mom and a Jewish dad," notes Shy Guy (Maximo Weber Salas), one of Richie's T-Bird buddies. "I'm not really the Chosen People when it comes to a place like that." Jane's unease about the venue leads to "In the Club," a surreal and slightly anachronistic jazz number about white supremacy: "When you're in the club/We've got each other's backs/As long as you're not Jewish, Asian, brown or Black/Single woman or gay/On the wrong side of they."

Johnathan Nieves as Richie Valdovinos and Marisa Davila as Jane Facciano in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies: "If You Can't Be an Athlete, Be an Athletic Supporter" EP#104 streaming on Paramount +, 2022. Photo Credit: Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+
Johnathan Nieves as Richie Valdovinos and Marisa Davila as Jane Facciano in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies: "If You Can't Be an Athlete, Be an Athletic Supporter" EP#104 streaming on Paramount +, 2022. Photo Credit: Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+

Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+v Marisa Davila and Johnathan Nieves in 'Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies'

Rise of the Pink Ladies looks beautiful. Choreographer Jamal Sims and production designer Mark Freeborn (Better Call Saul) craft visually dazzling set pieces and dance numbers, and the meticulously detailed period costumes are the bee's knees. As the Pink Ladies themselves, Davila, Wells, Notartomaso, and Fukuhara are all dynamic and likable performers. Their male counterparts, by contrast, are lackluster. Nieves doesn't possess the charisma and swagger necessary to make Richie a convincing T-Bird-slash-rival for Jane's affections. Schmidt's Buddy is so totally dullsville, it's hard to care whether he winds up with Jane or brilliant new girl, Hazel (Shanel Bailey). But Pink Ladies works hard to service all these budding romances, while also cramming in multiple subplots that are often accompanied by draggy musical numbers. By episode 5, I began to imagine a show without boys.

Of course, Grease is prime IP for Paramount, and the studio didn't splash out all that bread just to make a niche musical drama about intersectional feminism. Rise of the Pink Ladies is built to appeal to as vast an audience as possible, from musical buffs to neo-Gleeks to olds like me who fell in love with the original as a kid. That may not be the most interesting approach, but as far as prequels go, there are worse things they could do. Grade: B-

Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies premieres Thursday, April 6, on Paramount+.

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