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'Rise Of The Pink Ladies' Is Good Clean Fun

By Jen Maravegias | TV | April 17, 2023 |

By Jen Maravegias | TV | April 17, 2023 |


As a child, watching movies was a popular rainy-day activity at my summer day camp. The 1978 film Grease was in heavy rotation with Charlotte’s Web and Bedknobs And Broomsticks. When something worms its way into your psyche like that, you begrudgingly begin enjoying it. Eventually, you find yourself singing “Hopelessly Devoted To You” in the shower. Or doing the hand-jive while “You’re The One That I Want” plays on a loop in your head. In that same, reluctant way, I enjoyed the available episodes of Grease: Rise Of The Pink Ladies, now streaming on Paramount+.

In this prequel — set four years before the original movie — Jane (Marisa Davila) was the goody-two-shoes new girl last year. Over the summer, she started going steady with the captain of the football team and all-around Good Guy, Buddy. She is determined to make this year a better one, where no one thinks she’s weird or strange. Jane’s dreams are dashed after one night at the drive-in when a jealous busybody classmate catches her and Buddy making out in his car and spreads a rumor that Jane went “all the way.” That’s the death of Jane’s good reputation. Once Buddy proves he’s more interested in perpetuating that myth than clearing her name, it’s the death of her new relationship too.

In her efforts to rehabilitate her reputation, Jane finds unexpected allies in Olivia Valdovinos (Cheyenne Isabel Wells) the sister of T-Birds leader Richie (Johnathan Nieves), and Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso) the tomboy T-Bird wannabe. Fashionista Nancy Nakagawa (Tricia Fukuhara) is dumped by her BFFs when they discover boys and finds herself aligning with Jane’s Girl Gang. This Fab Four is the original Pink Ladies. And their mission is that of avenging feminist angels. Righting patriarchal and classist wrongs among both the Soc and Greaser social groups. With the support of her friends, Jane decides to challenge herself and the norms of the school by running against Buddy for class president. Her platform is that high school should be fun for everyone, not just the elite Socs.

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The show itself challenges the norms set by the film. It’s a more diverse cast and directly addresses the racism of 1950s California in a way the movie skirted past. Jane’s parents are Italian and Puerto Rican, and they struggle to fit into their new California home without revealing too much about their heritage. How racist are their neighbors? They assume Jane’s mom is so dark-skinned because she’s from a different region of Italy than Jane’s father. After listening to them complain about how loud all of the new Mexican neighbors are, she’s not about to correct them. The T-Birds are a mostly Mexican gang. Nancy and her family who run the malt shop are Japanese. And in the third episode, we’re introduced to the new New Girl, Hazel, who is Black. These are all welcome and necessary changes.

There are plenty of nods to the original. Jane’s little sister, Francesa, is “Frenchy.” And the new friend her mom has decided is a “bad influence” is Betty Rizzo. Jackie Hoffman (Only Murders In The Building) plays Assistant Principal McGee — who is promoted to Principal by the time the original movie takes place.

While none of these performers will ever be mistaken for Olivia Newton-John or John Travolta, there are some talented folks singing and dancing their way through Rydell High School during the 1954-55 school year. Cheyenne Isabel Wells’ Olivia is a real stand-out. Where it all falls short are the song and dance numbers themselves. They’re fun and lively, but they feel modern and not as catchy as the movie soundtrack. A lot of them are ethereal, like “Beauty School Dropout,” taking us out of the action instead of being part of it.

The original Grease was social commentary filtered through the gauzy lens of nostalgia for an era only 20 years in the past. Rise Of The Pink Ladies is a modern commentary on that society. Campy? Yes. But in a way that feels more deliberate and pessimistic. But, like, in a super peppy way. It has a similar look and feel to the film version of In The Heights and the new West Side Story. When it eventually hits Broadway, and you know it will, I expect it to be a lot like Heathers or Legally Blonde The Musical: A very shiny, clean musical for everyone. Just don’t sing along in the audience.

Grease: Rise Of The Pink Ladies is on Paramount+ with new episodes streaming every Thursday.