With its fourth attempt at producing a live television musical, NBC has finally hit it on the head with Hairspray Live!.
Hairspray was originally produced on Broadway in 2002 and was based on the 1988 movie of the same name. Taking place in 1962, the musical follows plus-sized teen Tracy Turnblad, whose one wish is to be a dancing cast member of the Corny Collins Show so that she may meet and fall in love with her crush, Link Larkin, who has a starring role on the show… and an equally talented girlfriend, Amber Von Tussle. Despite the odds, with the help of some new friends, she makes it onto the show and wants to payback the debts she owes to them by integrating the show.
This live television production of the musical starred newcomer Maddie Baillio, who is currently a sophomore in college, as Tracy. Though Baillio is by far the freshest face of the whole cast, most of the young cast members are relative nobodies. Amber and Link were played by Dove Cameron and Garrett Clayton, respectively, who both have experience mainly in Disney Channel TV shows and movies. Ephraim Sykes, who played George Eacker in Broadway’s Hamilton, shone as Seaweed J. Stubbs. He was able to bring a certain energy to his character that the rest of the young actors couldn’t quite find, especially in his song “Run and Tell That!,” which was by far one of the strongest songs of the whole show. The others include Baillio’s rendition of “I Can Hear the Bells” and the ensemble’s performance of “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
Of the adult cast members, I was most impressed by Kristin Chenoweth, who played Velma Von Tussle, and Jennifer Hudson, who played Motormouth Maybelle, both being Broadway stars themselves. The pair, separately, have an impossibly long vocal range and incredible acting abilities, and that went along with the rest of the cast as well. Hudson, former star of Broadway’s the Color Purple, shone in her performances of “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful” and “I Know Where I’ve Been.” As hesitant as I was about Harvey Fierstein’s particularly gravelly voice, he filled the role of Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother, perfectly. Even Martin Short as Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s father, was so well cast it makes you wonder why he was never in that role until now. Despite Derek Hough’s repertoire being mostly dancing, he was the perfect man to play Corny Collins, and he sang and acted with just the right personality for the role.
The one cast member I could have done without was, dare I say it, Ariana Grande. Despite having her origins in starring as Charlotte in the Broadway musical 13, it seems that her vocal style has changed significantly since 2008. Though her soft and airy head-voice would seem the obvious fit for her role–Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s best friend–it seemed completely out of place among the other Broadway stars. Considering her very few musical credits and her popularity in the pop music world, she was likely the celebrity viewer-hook for the show. Even though the show was almost completely ‘60’s pop, her voice just stuck out from the rest.
The production of the musical overall was stunning. Just when I thought that the costumes couldn’t get any bigger or the sets couldn’t get any shinier or the choreography couldn’t get any better, it did. The live performance and the expanded stage actually did not feel awkward like I’d expected. In fact, it felt just that: expanded, having something that just cannot be done in the theatre. The actors were able to run down whole streets while singing and dancing, which made the show seem more like a movie than anything else. The show even went on with very few apparent technical difficulties, which have to be expected for a live show. They were limited to shaky cameras, a few microphone malfunctions, and one camera coming into the shot in the middle of a scene: nothing that ruined the whole show.
The only thing I didn’t like about the production was how it lifted the curtain for the audience. This includes how NBC had Broadway star Darren Criss “host” the show, when in reality all he did was say hello and goodbye between the real show and the commercials. He would even throw it over to other correspondents from across the country to broadcast “viewing parties,” including Baltimore and Atlanta. Though it was cute to visit Maddie Baillio’s high school in Houston, Texas, the bit seemed completely pointless. They even went as far as to broadcast what the cast was doing during commercial breaks at the bottom of the screen. While it does give a “behind the scenes view,” it ruins the magic of theatre: The magic that can only be produced when watching or even performing a live nonstop show, making it all seem so effortless. I understand that commercials were necessary to actually fund this production, but I did not appreciate how they used them.
Overall, the show was a complete hit. Although in the past NBC has received very mixed reviews on its live TV musicals, including the Sound of Music and the Wiz at opposite ends of the spectrum, they seem to have finally understood what makes a good musical, on or off of Broadway. The employing of up and coming actors as well as old pros was particularly effective, along with its stellar costume and set design. It was a musical worthy of a Tony, or an Emmy?