The Grease franchise consists of a movie made in the late 1970s based on a Broadway musical that debuted in the early ’70s chronicling the lives of ’60s era highschool kids (mostly played by 30 year olds). And despite all of the many anachronisms, it worked.
While it is intentionally out of date, many of the values of the franchise hold up. The loneliness of high school, trying to find your people and yourself, and the sexual awakening of your teenage years. We may not have been able to identify with using a phone connected to the wall, but we did understand the feeling of catching the bad boy’s attention or wanting to accomplish something despite being told no.
As a prequel series, Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies pays homage to the beloved property while taking it to task for some of its omissions. Set in the early- to mid-1950s, Rise of the Pink Ladies introduces us to the history of the iconic girl gang.
In a very smart move, the original gang of Pink Ladies begins at least two years before any of the Pink Ladies we’re familiar with get involved. There’s a very fun reveal in the first episode that nestles the series nicely into the canon. Because of this, the Pink Ladies are able to be different and still iron out the kinks in their mission statement. At the same time, we see the ladies honestly just try to survive ’50s America, especially the people of color.
It’s wild to see so many people get up in arms about “adding” diversity to projects that were factually incorrect to not have it in the first place. Everyone loves Grease but it’s been clear over the last 45 years that Grease didn’t really love diversity or at the very least seemed mildly unconcerned. It’s understandable. Grease is certainly a product of its less progressive times, but we live in a world where the audience is becoming more vocal about seeing their faces in these histories.
On one hand, it’s great because of course people of color, queer people, and people of disparate gender identities existed during these times. On the other hand, it also exposes that many times their days were not as “happy” as many of the movies set in that time would have you believe. So how do you shine a spotlight on the fallacy of the “good ole days” while still expressing the joy of self-discovery? It’s a tough balance, but Rise of the Pink Ladies seems to have found a way.
We open at Makeout Point where Jane (Marisa Davila) is making out with her summer boyfriend, Buddy (Jason Schmidt). She thinks they’re about to break up, but Buddy has different ideas. He wants to go steady with Jane, which means debuting their relationship at the drive-in. Of course it’s met with some consternation, mostly from Susan (Madison Thompson), Buddy’s ex, and popular cheerleader.
They begin a feud that leaves Jane embarrassed and heartbroken. While tending to her wound,s she meets four unlikely heroines. The first is Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells), sister of head T-Bird Ritchie (Jonathan Nieves). She’s coming off a year involving an alleged scandal with a teacher. She’s run out of effs to give and decides she’s going to live up to the “slut” moniker that’s been foisted on her. She walks around in skin tight, low cut sweaters that hug her curves and make Ritchie threaten anyone who tries to look at her in “that way.” Next there’s Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso) who is much more comfortable hanging in the garage with the T-Birds than doing anything “girly.” She wants more than anything to have her own T-Birds jacket and to be seen as much more than a novelty.
Another of the group, Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara), has no time to be distracted by boys if she’s going to be the next big name in fashion. She’s willing to sacrifice relationships and even being kicked out of friendships to attain her goals. Finally, we have what will amount to honorary member Hazel (Shanel Bailey). Hazel is a new student to Ryedel High and tries to keep the peace by keeping her head down and her nose clean. She’s African American and ultimately feels uncomfortable until she can’t help but to speak her mind and Jane takes notice.
Together the group stick up for their rights while discovering themselves — and making the life of Miss McGee (Jackie Hoffman) miserable. Rise of the Pink Ladies is a musical much in the style of Glee, where music comes out of nowhere and anything can lead into a song. Choreographed by Jamal Sims, the numbers are a mix of modern and era appropriate style with lots of twirling skirts and shiny shoes. Executive musical producer extraordinaire Justin Tranter wrote over 32 original songs for the show, culminating in very catchy numbers that are unique but still feel connected.
Each girl gets their own moment, and all are strong vocalists. Even the guys are great. There’s a mix of stage actors and newbies, and all are operating at 110%. It’s thrilling to watch. I also noticed that the levity and drama of the songs don’t undercut the seriousness of the scenes we’re watching.
I mentioned before that the line between entertainment and responsibility can be very fine. Rise of the Pink Ladies acknowledges the diversity issues in several successful ways. Wally (Maxwell Whittington-Cooper) is a jock and Black. Yet, having grown up with most of the kids in the area, he’s afforded a certain amount of privilege based on his family’s financial standing. It’s a designation he’s probably never considered questioning until Hazel comes in as a stark contrast. Jane is half Puerto Rican and half Italian, and her mother Kitty (Vivian Lamolli) insists she tell everyone she’s Italian and won’t let her or her little sister Fran (Madison Elizabeth Legares) speak Spanish in the home. That the show tackles this need for assimilation so authentically is truly a credit to the team.
What’s a bit strange is the treatment of Asian American students. Nancy and her best friend are both Asian and both can be found macking on white boys and causing general mischief, but this is 1952, just 7 years after the Manzanar concentration camps. I understand that it’s California and more liberal, but during this time, sentiments towards Asians were not great. And it wouldn’t matter if Nancy were Japanese, Chinese, or even South Asian — intolerance has no respect of person. I get they were doing a lot with exploring the dynamics for African Americans, Latine Americans, and genderqueer people, but I think at least a mention of Nancy’s issues would go a long way to making her more than just someone who ends up designing the jacket. She’s a fantastic character, and Fukuhara does a fantastic job with her so hopefully we’ll see more growth as the season goes on.
Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies is a bright, fun series which doesn’t shy away from being authentic, if not controversial.
The series will debut April 6, 2023, on Paramount Plus.
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Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found in some corner of the internet pontificating about pop culture and its effect on women, Blackfolk and the LGBT+ community. You can see more of her work at https://syvonnecreative.com