Hairspray Live! Between commercials and cutaways, NBC proves they CAN stop the beat (review)

Now that we’re mired in Trump America, there’s unexpected profundity to the pop confection Hairspray Live!, the live TV version of the 2002 musical that aired Wednesday night on NBC. If Trump and his minions have their way, it’ll be the early 1960s all over again (the musical is set in 1962)—and we’ll have to fight all over again for our civil and human rights.

This critic found herself jotting down lines and lyrics that in 2016 have all new relevance:

-“We must steer them in the white direction.”—Velma Von Tussle (Kristin Chenoweth)

“I got my own way of movin’ and my own voice.”—Little Inez (Shahadi Wright Joseph)

-“I want to be the first female president—or a Rockette.”—Traci Turnblad (Maddie Baillio)

“Brace yourself for a whole lot of ugly.”—Motormouth Maybelle (Jennifer Hudson)

 

Maddie Baillio (center), Dove Cameron, (left) and Ariana Grande (right), and cast from Hairspray Live! (Photo: Chris Haston/NBC)

Maddie Baillio (center), Dove Cameron, (left) and Ariana Grande (right), and cast from Hairspray Live! (Photo: Chris Haston/NBC)

Who knew that a buoyant musical—based on the 1988 John Waters cult film–about dancing, acceptance and desegregation would not only be germane but also a cautionary tale that the old days when America was “great” probably applied to white men, not so much for African Americans, women and the avoirdupois-challenged.

Social outcasts—the so-called “losers” in Trump parlance—and black lives matter in the world of Hairspray, which centers on Tracy Turnblad (Maddie Baillio), a plus-sized Baltimore teen with mad skills on the dance floor who just wants every race to be able to dance together.

Tracy sets her sights on the “The Corny Collins Show,” a local program featuring squeaky-clean kids who are all thin, peppy and white. She thinks it’s high time that more than one body type is represented on TV (and not as a comic object of derision) and that “every day should be Negro Day” on the show.

(l-r) Ephraim Sykes, Ariana Grane, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Garrett Clayton and Jennifer Hudson in Hairspray Live! (Photo: NYC)

(l-r) Ephraim Sykes, Ariana Grane, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Garrett Clayton and Jennifer Hudson in Hairspray Live! (Photo: NYC)

In the process, Tracy lands the hunky love interest Link Larson (Garrett Clayton), raises the self-esteem of her overweight, shut-in mother Edna (Harvey Fierstein); and breaks down racial barriers with new friends Seaweed  J. Stubbs (Ephraim Sykes, a Hamilton veteran who kills the James Brown moves and sultry vocals), local DJ Motormouth Maybelle (a resplendent Jennifer Hudson) and her talented daughter Little Inez (Shahadi Wright Joseph, bright with promise with her mature pipes and sharp dancing).

Director Kenny Leon whips his cast all over the studio backlot, smoothly zipping from outdoor sets to studios. This technique worked best in “Mama I’m A Big Girl Now,” using the split screen as Tracy, her mother-smothered best friend Penny Pingleton (Ariana Grande) and cosseted Amber Von Tussle (Dove Cameron) plead with their mothers to loosen the apron strings.

Maddie Baillio, a college sophomore, was discovered during a nationwide casting call, and while she is fine in the role and gains power in the second act, she lacks that irresistible, ahem, larger-than-life quality needed for this role.

Granted, she is playing against Broadway powerhouses such as Kristin Chenoweth as Velma Van Tussle, the titular producer of “The Corny Collins Show” who loathes everything the Turnblad family stands for. Chenoweth portrays Velma as literally mad with power, dashing around the set baring her claws—after all, she was once crowned Miss Baltimore Crab—cackling and hitting those amazing high C’s.

And Jennifer Hudson sashays away with the show as Motormouth Maybelle, packing sass and attitude in the fat acceptance anthem “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and bringing soul-shaking gospel power to the hymn “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Another Broadway veteran, Martin Short, plays Wilbur Turnblad with such goofy dexterity you wish he were around more often. His soft-shoe duet with his ladylove Edna “Timeless to Me” is sweet, bawdy—when Wilbur says “Dance with me, Edna” Short executes a quick bump and grind—and steals your heart.

(center) Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblatt and Martin Short as in Hairspray Live! (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

(center) Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblatt and Martin Short as in Hairspray Live! (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Fierstein’s Edna growls majestically, but also displays touching vulnerability as someone once with hopes and dreams now trapped in their body.

The cameos were also fun—Ricki Lake (the original Tracy in the 1988 film) and Marisa Jaret Winokur (the original Broadway Tracy) play salespeople at Mr. Pinky’s plump gals emporium and Andrea Martin brings brass and warmth to the role of Mrs. Pingleton.

As for the more recent newcomers to musical theatre, Dove Cameron as Amber Von Tussle exhibits a Hitchcock blonde icy beauty and composure, as well as surprising spine wrapped in cotton-candy pastels as she nails her big song “Cooties” and the girly, stomping dance steps.

What didn’t work was the constant cutting to the cast going from place to place in golf carts and the frequent cutaways to frenzied fans watching Hairspray Live! in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Baltimore (although it was a hoot to see the new mayor Catherine Pugh whooping it up in a local bar with a bunch of Baltimore hons).

Who cares how the actors get to the next set? The constant taking us out of the show for some reason or another completely broke the idea of musicals transporting audiences to a different world and also resulted in the production losing juice and momentum.  This showus interruptis also disrupts the ecstatic wave upon wave of joy and liberation in the finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

And why is it pitch-black dark for the opening number, “Good Morning, Baltimore”—other than the obvious, it was performed outside? Really, it could have been done indoors or maybe produce some Hollywood magic with lighting?

Musical purists may also detect that two numbers written for the 2007 film, “Ladies’ Choice” (an excellent showcase for Derek Hough’s in-your-face dance moves in the role of Corny Collins) and “Come So Far (Got So Far to Go),”are incorporated into the TV version. “The Big Dollhouse” and “The New Girl In Town” were cut.

Another unnecessary distraction was having Darren Criss as a narrator/presenter, who just seemed to be always in the way. It also was cheezy to have Reddi-Whip and Oreo cookies as sponsors and also with prominent product placement, as if every commercial being about whipped cream or dessert wasn’t enough.

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Hairspray Live!  . Based on the musical by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan . Book Writer: Harvey Fierstein. Director: Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski.  Featuring: Maddie Baillio, Harvey Fierstein, Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short, Ariana Grande, Derek Hough,, Jennifer Hudson, Dove Cameron, Garrett Clayton, Ephraim Sykes, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Billy Eichner, Sean Hayes, Andrea Martin Rosie O’Donnell . Presented by:  Darren Criss.  Producers: Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. Aired December 7 on NBC.

3stars

 

Missed it?  Stream it here. 

 

 

 

Jayne Blanchard About Jayne Blanchard

Jayne Blanchard has been a critic covering DC theater for the past 10 years, most recently for the Washington Times. Prior to that, she was a theater critic in the Twin Cities and a movie reviewer in the Washington area. She is a proud resident of Baltimore.

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