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‘Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies’ rises to the occasion, while ‘Schmigadoon!’ hits the same notes

<i>Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+</i><br/>Tricia Fukuhara
Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+
Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+
Tricia Fukuhara

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

Building TV shows around 45-year-old intellectual property always provokes some skepticism, which is why it’s a pleasure to report that “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” is better than it has any right to be. Arriving on Paramount+ a day apart from the second season of Apple TV+’s “Schmigadoon!,” the prequel also underscores that streaming has helped create a boom time for musical series.

Armed with an insanely talented and considerably more diverse young cast, the show takes place at Rydell High in 1954, a few years before the events most came to know in the John Travolta-Olivia Newton-John movie. (The kids, incidentally, actually look more like high-school students than their predecessors, which wouldn’t be difficult.)

“Rise of the Pink Ladies” also boasts a bit of edge, landing somewhere between “High School Musical” and “Euphoria” on the “What are those kids up to” scale, with lots of making out (and occasionally a bit more) at the drive-in. The premiere’s main job, though, involves carefully assembling a group of outcasts, each dealing with the cruelty of high school, including the rumor mill spread by rotary telephones a la “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Opening with a cover of the Frankie Valli song, the series begins by introducing Jane (Marisa Davila), who has hooked up with one of the popular kids, Buddy (Jason Schmidt), unleashing all sorts of bad blood and sniping. Half Italian, half Puerto Rican, Jane already has to deal with a stern mother who, hoping for a better life, isn’t eager to publicize her heritage.

Circumstances lead Jane to Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells), who has already experienced a bumpy ride on “the gossip train” from the previous year; Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso), who (shades of “West Side Story”) yearns to be part of a boy gang but isn’t accepted by them; and Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara), whose suddenly boy-crazy friends abandon her. Later, Jane tries to bond with another new girl, Hazel (Shanel Bailey), struggling to find her place in the school’s caste system.

The casting, wisely, isn’t color blind, taking into account the racism of the time when Jane and her family visit the local country club, which erupts in a song-and-dance number involving the old white men who established the place.

“Rise of the Pink Ladies” proves consistently inventive along those lines, from gravity-defying choreography to the clever lyrics, including a song about duck-and-cover drills in case of nuclear attack, which will mean less to current teenagers than it will their parents and grandparents.

Created by Annabel Oakes (“Atypical,” “Transparent”), “Rise of the Pink Ladies” manages the difficult and thankless task of drawing upon a recognizable Paramount library title and carving out its own identity. Rising to the occasion, the show gives high-school life in the ’50s groove and meaning, in a way that’s as slick as it is fun.

As for “Schmigadoon!,” the second season amusingly shifts from the 1950s-tinged flavor that defined the original run to the edgier, sexier fare of the late 1960s and ’70s, yielding riffs on the likes of “Chicago” (hence the “Schmicago!” branding for this season), “Cabaret,” “A Chorus Line,” “Godspell,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The set-up is practically the same, with Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) and Melissa (Cecily Strong) having escaped their first visit to musical-land but now seeking to rekindle the magic in their relationship. That leads to Schmicago, a crooning narrator (Tituss Burgess), a false murder charge, and a lot of familiar faces showing off their Broadway-honed skills, including Ariana DeBose, Dove Cameron, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Ann Harada, Jane Krakowski, and Aaron Tveit.

Series creators Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio possess an obvious love for musical theater, and the songs and elaborate dance routines give the impression that everyone involved is having a blast sending up these seminal productions.

That said, this really is just a redo in a different era, and the story feels particularly slight in terms of serving as little more than the connective-tissue excuse for all those ripe musical parodies.

A trip to “Schmicago!” isn’t bad by that measure, but to borrow from one of those aforementioned musicals, this is another case when one singular sensation, in hindsight, probably would do.

“Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” premieres April 6 on Paramount+.

“Schmigadoon” begins its second season April 5 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: Lowry’s wife works for a division of Apple.)

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