Hairspray Live! Review


Good Morning Baltimore? Good Night Universal Studios Backlot is more like it.

But, hey, suspension of disbelief is a thing. And for a musical, I’m willing to tackle my disbelief to the ground and vomit joy all over it to preserve the whimsy. Luckily, that was not necessary during last night’s winning broadcast of NBC’s Hairspray Live!.

By way of countless acclaimed productions around the world and  two movies, Hairspray is the latest stage musical to receive the live television treatment courtesy of the Peacock Network. For their previous efforts (The Wiz, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music), I put their record at a disappointing 1-2.

Earlier this year, Fox upped the ante for the genre with their critically lauded, technically superior production. I can happily report that NBC more than met the challenge and change their statistic to a more promising 2-2.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman effervescent Tony-winning score is gorgeously preserved in the broadcast. It is forced to carry the show thanks to Harvey Fierstein’s uneven script adaptation. He stops the beat of the show cold with scenes that are sometimes bloated and, at other times, rushed. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s moves (also recruited from the original Broadway production) keeps the energy elevated even if they infect the musical numbers with a certain sameness.

If you’ve been living with your head underneath a hair dryer, allow me to introduce you to “pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad. As 1960’s Baltimore’s biggest dreamer, she wishes with equal fervor to be a dancer on her beloved “The Corny Collins Show” AND to see it racially integrated. She’s in love with the show’s male star Link Larkin (Hairspray Live!’s weakest link Garrett Clayton) and at odds with the villainous Von Tussles. They regard Tracy and her black friends Seaweed and Lil Inez (Ephraim Sykes and Shahadi Wright Joseph, both are thrilling) as second class citizens.

Along with them, her best friend Penny (an unrecognizably goofy and intelligible Ariana Grande), “Negro Day” host Motormouth Maybelle, and her loving parents (Mr. Fierstein reprising his Tony-winning drag performance and Martin Short), Tracy decides it’s time to stop wishing and start fighting. History and the light style of the show hint at the cheerful end to come, but they don’t ever diminish Hairspray’s timeless and timely message of acceptance.

Twenty year old Maddie Baillio clearly experienced much more acceptance at her audition than her character does. That being said, I do not think that her work here will leave an impression the way Tracy did on Corny’s show. Baillio’s confidence was never as steady and strong as her voice. She went through the motions in her big opening number but, during its Act II reprise, she did manage to tap into something very touching and genuine. She growled her notes and swiveled her hips in all the right places, but this role is not the place to color inside the lines.

Unfortunately for Ms. Baillio, Dove Cameron emerged as the true breakout star of the night. She distilled a century’s worth of tried and true mean girl tropes into an original and laugh out loud funny Amber Von Tussle. She more than held her own hamming it up with Tony and Emmy winner Kristin Chenoweth as Velma Von Tussle.

Cameron and Chenoweth have played mother and daughter baddies once before in Disney Channel’s Descendants, but I say keep it coming. They had the best chemistry of any pair in the show. Ms. Chenoweth’s only “fault” is that her high-kicking, high-C-singing Velma is far too stunning and multi-talented to require cheating her way to the title of Ms. Baltimore Crabs.

Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson delivers possibly her finest, most consistent performance to date as the big, blonde, and beautiful Motormouth. Everyone will remember where they were during her earth shattering rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been”. She’s obviously really wants to EGOT, but it’s also clear that she’s working so hard because she takes the power of this show’s themes to heart and to mind.

Of the many elements NBC borrowed from Fox’s Grease: Live, Emmy winner Alex Rudzinski was certainly worth every dime it took to acquire him. Still, the awkward camera-ography during scenes on the Baltimore streets didn’t convince me I was missing anything with the somewhat flat, static sets we’d seen featured in the three previous live musicals. It wasn’t until we glided onto the technicolor WZZT studio or through the humble hallways of the Turnblad house that Rudzinski and co-director Kenny Leon (who brings the same magic and gravitas to Baltimore he brought to Oz last year) harmoniously melded the cinematic and the theatrical.

Production designer Derek McLane obviously deserves some of that credit as well for creating an incredibly vibrant and detailed canvas for his directors, actors, and fellow designers to play on. Mary Vogt’s costumes are similarly spectacular even if at times a little too reminiscent of William Ivey Long’s original Tony-winning designs.

If you’re wondering why Tracy’s hair is so big, that’s because it’s full of the dreams of every social outcast who has danced, sung, and marched along with her since John Waters’ original 1988 film. Mine included. I dream of being accepted and respected for who I am rather than judged for the color of my skin and who I love. Just when I think that dream may be in jeopardy in light of the election, good people like those who made Hairspray Live! do something to make me smile and give me hope.

So thank you, NBC. That’s not something I ever imagined myself saying after the cancellation of 30 Rock, but I really had a blast last night. Your move, J. Lo.

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