Thursday, December 8, 2016

Welcome to the 60s

Review: Hairspray Live

The cast of Hairspray Live, led by Maddie Baillio (center)

When NBC announced The Sound of Music Live would premiere on December 5th, 2013, no one was sure what to expect from a contemporary company resurrecting a long dead entertainment format. The resulting telecast wasn't particularly well liked (I maintain it isn't as bad as many people claim), but it was a ratings smash that guaranteed a follow-up. 2014 brought Peter Pan Live, a much better production of a much worse show, while 2015 gave us the often charming but structurally bizarre The Wiz Live. 

Then early this year, Fox's attempt to blatantly cash in on this live musical craze shockingly produced the legitimately wonderful Grease Live, all the more impressive considering it was the network's first attempt at the format. Not wanting to be outdone, NBC doubled down by picking a legitimately great musical comedy in the Tony-winning Hairspray, and smartly (some would say shamelessly) aped Grease Live's biggest innovations: the use of a studio backlot and a live studio audience. Hairspray Live is fittingly NBC's most entertaining live musical to date, although it doesn't quite have the focus or technical precision of Fox's venture.

For those unfamiliar with the original John Waters film, the Broadway musical adaptation, or the 2007 musical film, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a bighearted and full-figured girl in 1960s Baltimore. Tracy manages to score a spot dancing on her favorite TV program, the Corny Collins Show, much to the chagrin of the show's produce Velma von Tussle and her daughter, Amber. But Tracy soon finds herself drawn to a higher calling as she fights against the racial discrimination of the TV station, all while wooing its resident heartthrob Link Larkin. Cached within the candy colored sets and 1960's nostalgia is a powerful and unfortunately still timely message about fighting racism and bigotry, which lends this feel good fable a huge amount of relevance in the current political climate.

One thing that is readily apparent watching Hairspray Live is what a truly great musical it is. The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman is one of the finest collections of showtunes from the past 20 years, combining supremely catchy hooks with deft lyrics and harmonic complexity. The showstopping numbers just keep coming, and while the book (adapted for television by Harvey Fierstein) doesn't have quite enough room for both the large number of subplots and jokes, it's so much fun you rarely care. Next to The Sound of Music, this is the sturdiest musical to be mounted on live TV, and that solid construction goes a long way towards keeping everything entertaining.

Hairspray Live is also incredibly well cast, utilizing a combination of marquee names and relative unknowns to create a delightful ensemble of quirky characters. Newcomer Maddie Baillo is charming as Tracy, although an understandable amount of nerves seem to hamper her for the first 15 minutes. Harvey Fierstein recreates his Tony-winning role as Tracy's mother Edna, and it is a treat to watch this veteran musical comedy performer reprise one of his most iconic roles. Martin Short comes across as slightly manic playing Tracy's father Wilbur, but its easy to forgive the excesses of such a giving performance from a such seasoned comic.

Pop singer Ariana Grande throws herself into the role of Tracy's best friend Penny, and while she doesn't quite nail the part's comic timing her earnestness is infectious (and as expected, she can really wail). Ephraim Sykes is supremely confident and charming as Seaweed J. Stubbs, the black dancer responsible for opening Tracy's eyes to the need for a fully integrated Corny Collins Show. And while Dancing with the Stars alum Derek Hough is suitable smooth as the show's host, Disney Channel star Garrett Clayton falls flat as Link. Clayton exhibits exhibiting zero charisma or chemistry with any of his costars, and that lack of star power probably explains why the number "Ladies Choice" was taken from Link and given to Hough, who uses it to really show off his dance skills.

As the villain of the piece, Kristin Chenoweth shines playing ex-beauty queen and unapologetic racist Velma von Tussle. A former pageant girl herself, Chenoweth brings every ounce of her comic might and singing prowess to the role, chewing the scenery in the best way possible during her standout "Miss Baltimore Crabs." Dove Cameron, another Disney Channel star, is also wonderful as Chenoweth's daughter, showcasing an appropriate mean girl vibe and surprisingly strong singing chops. And while she has a relatively minor role, Andrea Martin is hilarious as always as Penny's conservative mother Prudy. (The presence of Chenoweth, Martin, and Fierstein convinced the producers to include the excellent "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," a number from the stage show that was cut from the film.)

The true standout of the evening, however, is Jennifer Hudson as Seaweed's mother, Motormouth Maybelle. The Oscar and Grammy-winner doesn't appear until almost halfway through the evening, and her entrance is the jolt of energy the show needs just as it's beginning to flag. Hudson has always been more of a personality than an actress, but her particular brand of sass is exactly what the role calls for, and she subsequently knocks it out of the park. She sounds phenomenal during her first number, so much so that you don't even mind that she is far to svelte to be singing about the joys of being "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful." And her rendition of the power ballad "I Know Where I've Been" late in the second half is simply outstanding, the showstopping highlight of the evening.

With so much talent on display, it's doubly disappointing that the camerawork rarely offers a good view of the action. While cutting between multiple cameras during a live broadcast cannot be easy - especially when the actors are singing and dancing through multiple sets on a sprawling studio backlot - one would expect NBC to have figured out a better way to do it by now, especially since Hairspray Live's director Kenny Leon helmed last year's musical outing as well. The continuous quick cuts often detract from Jerry Mitchell's slickly polished and energetic dance routines, as well as obscuring much of the first class scenery chewing being done by supporting players like Chenoweth. The camera often arrives on a moment either slightly too soon or too late, which combined with the overly dark lighting makes it difficult to really see what's going on.

Overall, Hairspray Live is a highly enjoyable affair, and easily the best overall live musical production to come out of NBC. But four years in it still doesn't feel like the network has entirely nailed the format, which is both disappointing and frustrating. These live musicals are a worthy pursuit for the network, and I honestly hope they continue to be annual events. Hairspray is definitely a move in the right direction, but there's still room for improvement.


  1. This is actually the second time Kristin Chenoweth and Dove Cameron have played a mother and daughter; they previously played a mother and daughter in the Disney Channel movie Descendants, which is about Disney villains and their children. Chenoweth played Maleficent and Cameron played her daughter.

    Also, it has been announced that NBC's 2017 live musical will be Bye Bye Birdie!, with Jennifer Lopez already cast as Rosie. No other casting has been announced though. What do you think?

    1. I think "Bye Bye Birdie" will be fine. I can't say I'm excited about it, as I don't know if the show has aged particularly well, but I can see Jennifer Lopez doing a good job. I just hope they fix some of the camera and light issues.