NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” lacked the extra-strength hold of its predecessors, but didn’t fall completely flat thanks to outstanding performances by some of its more seasoned stars.
“Hairspray” became a pop-culture fixture as the subversive 1988 John Waters film that starred Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, a “pleasantly plump” teenager who became an overnight dance sensation and led an effort to integrate the popular “Corny Collins Show” in 1962 Baltimore. A musical version hit Broadway in 2002 and won eight Tony Awards, including best musical. “Hairspray” returned to the big screen in 2007 in a surprisingly delightful (and smart) adaptation of the musical that gave due nods to Waters’s original film.
Newcomer Maddie Baillio gave an endearing and earnest performance as Tracy. But while Baillio brought strong vocal talent to the role, her portrayal lacked the confidence of the Tracy Turnblads of yore. When Velma Von Tussle (played with wicked glee by Kristin Chenoweth) asked Tracy whether she would swim in an integrated pool, her response – “I’m all for integration. It’s the new frontier” – was familiar to “Hairspray” fans, but sounded kind of like a question.
And Tracy was not the only thing about Wednesday’s telecast that could have been more convincing. The original “Hairspray” surveyed the racial tension of the 1960s (and, subtly, its persistence across decades) with biting satire. Even the 2007 film, with an ensemble cast that included Zac Efron, John Travolta, Amanda Bynes and Christopher Walken, delivered racially sensitive dialogue with a scathing wink to the audience.
“The Nicest Kids in Town,” a song performed by Corny Collins, features one self-congratulatory lyric: “Nice white kids who like to lead the way, and once a month we have our Negro Day!” NBC’s take offered a perfunctory version of the number – led by longtime “Dancing With the Stars” pro Derek Hough (who played the handsome TV host) – that failed to punctuate the line with the self-awareness necessary to make the inherent injustice resonate. When Tracy met Seaweed (Ephraim Sykes) in detention, he denounced “the nomenclature” of “Negro Day” – a script update that was likely meant to add present-day context, but felt ham-handed considering the scene also included the musical’s more subdued original dialogue: Tracy’s declaring that she wished “every day were Negro Day,” and Seaweed responding, indelibly, “at our house, it is!”
Wednesday’s telecast marked NBC’s fourth live musical, and it was clear that the network had been inspired by Fox’s well-received “Grease: Live,” moving production to a Los Angeles soundstage (previous musicals were taped in New York) and incorporating a live audience. But NBC seemed to get carried away channeling the innovations that distinguished Fox’s live effort. Ultimately, “Hairspray Live!” committed one of the most common sins of 21st-century television: doing too much.
“Glee” alum Darren Criss was on hand to deliver behind-the-scenes updates, but he was stretched fairly thin between commenting on the production itself, teasing social media promotion of the musical and checking in with fans at watch parties across the country. One transition found Criss breathlessly chasing a golf cart carrying Baillio, Ariana Grande and others to the next scene. Penny Pingleton’s spastic, overprotective mother seemed downright composed in comparison.
NBC’s advertising was also sent into hyperdrive – some commercial breaks featured a wholly unnecessary thumbnail view of actors rushing about the soundstage. Hough ended an energetic performance of “Ladies’ Choice” with an Oreo ad that went (not so) seamlessly from “The Corny Collins Show” to an actual Oreo commercial. The real issue is that these live musicals have commercials at all, because they break up the production, but this seems unlikely to change. NBC offered a blink-and-you-missed-it tease of their next live production – “Bye Bye Birdie,” starring Jennifer Lopez – during a commercial break.
Of course, the challenges of producing a musical that unfolds in real-time cannot be overstated. And “Hairspray Live!” was brimming with talent – from stage veterans such as Chenoweth and Harvey Fierstein, who reprised his Tony-winning role as Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad (opposite Martin Short as Wilbur Turnblad) to pop stars Ariana Grande, who played Tracy’s awkward BFF, Penny Pingleton, and Jennifer Hudson, who sang circles around everyone else as local celebrity Motormouth Maybelle. Dove Cameron, who rose to fame playing identical twins on the Disney sitcom “Liv and Maddie” seemed particularly well-cast as Tracy’s nemesis, the bratty Amber Von Tussle. Sykes recovered from an off-tempo start to “Run And Tell That” with a scene change and fairly flawless vocals from Shahadi Wright Joseph, who played Seaweed’s kid sister, Inez. The only fault viewers seemed to find with Garrett Clayton, who played Tracy’s dreamy love interest, Link Larkin, was that he was not Zac Efron.
Despite its shortcomings, there was plenty to love about “Hairspray Live!” – for one, a scene that found Edna being swept away on a hot dog cart. Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur, who played Tracy Turnblad on Broadway, made welcome cameos during a spirited performance of “Welcome to the 60s.” Hudson assured Edna that “ain’t no one ever tossed this sofa to the curb for being too comfortable,” before belting out “Big, Blonde and Beautiful.”
Another outstanding number arrived at the end when the cast united for “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Tracy and her friends had finally achieved their goal of integrating “The Corny Collins Show” and everyone – unlikely teenage heroes, their parents and even the Von Tussles – danced together. Fierstein emerged from a giant can of Ultra Clutch hairspray in a red sequined dress, delivering Edna’s verse in his warbly baritone. Hudson, in the disguise that helped a fugitive Tracy sneak into the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant, tore away her costume to reveal a sparkly gold pantsuit.
It wasn’t perfect, but everyone seemed to be having a good time.