The holidays are approaching which means that it was time once again for NBC to trot out their latest installment of their annual live musical. In the year since The Wiz was performed, Fox has entered the musical game with productions of Grease and Rocky Horror Picture Show. While the latter wasn’t live and was pretty much a dud, Fox’s Grease was a game changer in elevating what a live network musical could look like; they brought in a live audience (which had been woefully needed) and were much more ambitious in their staging. Grease Live really set the new high watermark for what this event television should look like. NBC clearly realized that, as they basically copied Fox, right down to the golf carts to whisk the cast between sets. And while Hairspray Live was generally enjoyable, there were a lot of growing pains in NBC’s attempt to keep up with the Jonses. Hairspray Live had some great moments, but was also plagued with technical issues that detracted from the overall performance. It was a step in the right direction for NBC’s execution, but there are still some growing pains to work out.
My first introduction to Hairspray was the original 1988 John Waters movie. I went through a John Waters phase at one point and watched just about everything that he made, with varying levels of enjoyment. While I appreciated his devotion to kitsh and camp, ultimately his aesthetic wasn’t really for me. So it’s not surprising that my favorite Waters film is also his most mainstream – Hairspray. For the uninitiated, Hairspray is set in 1960s Baltimore and focuses on chubby teenager Tracy Turnblad who dreams of being a dancer on the popular The Corny Collins Show and meeting one of its featured dancers Link Larkin. While the show’s queen bee Amber Von Tussle mocks Tracy’s appearance during her audition, Tracy’s dancing skills are enough to land her a spot on the show. Tracy then leads a movement to integrate the show and allow dancers of all races to appear together. At the time, the decision to have Tracy’s mother played by drag queen Divine probably raised some eyebrows, but it set the tradition for subsequent iterations. The movie was turned into a Broadway musical in 2003 and then the Broadways show was remade into a movie in 2007.
Hairspray Live got off to a rocky start from the get go; the audio cut out from Maddie Baillio’s (Tracy Turnblad) microphone during the opening number (“Good Morning Baltimore”), the camera angles were chaotic and the blocking was off, and the lighting was nonexistent. The camera was so far away from Baillio that I wondered if they were trying to cover up the fact that she was lip syncing. Expanding to multiple sets definitely provides movement and energy to a musical, but the opening number was so haphazard that it looked unprofessional and was confusing rather than energizing. They eventually found their footing as the show went on, but some of these issues would pop up for the remainder of the production, especially the lighting. One of the best numbers of the night, “Timeless to Me,” was marred by a director audibly saying “30 seconds” over the duet. They also botched the camera work in the curtain call, cutting away from Kristen Chenoweth – one of the best things about the show – and not giving her the proper recognition. Perhaps because Fox’s execution was relatively flawless right out the gate these missteps were all the more glaring, but NBC really needs to up their game next time out. The technical issues distracted from the overall quality of the show. I get that it’s live TV, but they need to figure out how to pull this off better next time around. They also failed to incorporate the live audience, which made some of the jokes fall pretty flat, and instead borrowed the dumbest part of Grease Live by having Darren Criss host the production. I like Criss just fine, but all of those segments were really dumb and totally interrupted the flow of the show. I’m sorry but I don’t give a flying fig about the live viewing parties around the nation. Stick with the musical and ditch the extra nonsense.
When Hairspray Live was working, however, it really worked. The adults of the cast really stole the show from their younger counterparts and provided the best moments of the production. I am still not fully convinced that Jennifer Hudson can act, but she can sing like nobody’s business. Her turn as Motormouth Maybelle was great and her rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” was a showstopper; her vocals compensated for some questionable staging. Kristin Chenoweth did what she was born to do and did an excellent job of bringing bigoted Velma Von Tussle to life. Personally I can find Chenoweth a bit much, but when she’s up on stage I can’t get enough of her. Martin Short is also not always one of my favorites – he’s usually at an 11 when I need him at a 7 – but he was perfectly charming and relatively restrained as Tracy’s father Wilbur. As previously mentioned, his duet with Harvey Fierstein (who originated the role of Tracy’s mom Edna on Broadway) was one of the sweetest moments of the entire musical. Andrea Martin, Rosie O’Donnell, Sean Hayes, and Billy Eichner all had smaller roles, but made the most of their screen time; my only complaint is that Eichner could have been given more to do. I’m generally “meh” on Derek Hough (and even less charitable to his sister), but he was perfectly serviceable as dance show host Corny Collins. While clearly he can dance, I wasn’t sure if he could actually sing yet he managed to hold his own. There were also brief cameos by former Tracys Rikki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur (better luck next time, Nikki Blonsky).
The younger stars of Hairspray Live were more of a mixed bag. Maddie Baillio was good as Tracy, though I wish her performance was less earnest and a little tougher. But she was a fine choice and often battled through production issues to keep the show rolling. Ariana Grande was also fine as Tracy’s best friend Penny; she has some decent comedic timing and line delivery, though she occasionally relied on cuteness too often. Ephraim Sykes (Seaweed Stubbs) and Dove Cameron (Amber Von Tussle) were definite standouts in their commitment to their roles. Cameron was pitch perfect as the entitled mean girl Amber and Sykes energized any scene that he was a part of. Garrett Clayton as Link didn’t work for me at all, though unlike Twitter I wasn’t lamenting that he wasn’t Zac Efron (who played the role in the 2007 movie). Though Efron was definitely better, Clayton was the weakest link (ha!) of the production even without any comparison. He had zero chemistry with Tracy, though to be fair, he really had zero chemistry with anyone in the cast. He was just kind of there; his performance lacked any real personality or charisma. If story didn’t dictate otherwise, you would have no idea why all the girls were swooning over him; Tracy would have been better off with Seaweed.
I’ll admit that despite some great performances I did kind of tune out for the final hour of the production. Hairsrpay Live was perfectly fine – and a definite improvement over Rocky Horror Picture Show – but I just lost interest. That’s probably is more my issue than the productions; admittedly I was tired and am coming down with a cold, so my focus wasn’t optimal. I definitely like the message of acceptance that permeates Hairspray, which is sadly a sentiment that we need as much now as we did when the movie debuted. And despite the various technical glitches, I do applaud NBC for trying to take these live musicals to the next level. As someone who loves the theater, these live musicals are a fantastic way to reach a large audience and perhaps introduce musicals to a kid who otherwise wouldn’t have much exposure to them. So A for effort, B for execution. See you next year for Jennifer Lopez in Bye Bye Birdie. God help us all.