There were several firsts in Hairspray Live!, NBC’s fourth annual telecast of a Broadway musical (following The Sound Of Music, Peter Pan and last year’s The Wiz!) from exec producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan. The hit tuner about 1962 Baltimore and one chubby teenage girl’s determination to integrate an American Bandstand-type rock-and-roll TV show brought a live audience after three outings that were marked by dead spots where applause and laughter were wanted — especially in light of Fox’s award-winning Grease! last season, which showed it could be done — and how to do it.
In addition to the audience, we cut to viewing parties set up around the country, New Year’s Eve-style. A picture-in-picture screen during scene breaks offered micro-glimpses of backstage maneuvers; there was idiotic self-congratulatory color commentary, and key advertisers Reddi-Wip and Oreos were given prominent product placement and commercials that emulated the musical. The result was the most confusing of all the Peacock’s live telecasts to date, made more so by weird technical glitches (including an oversize aerosol can whose doors refused to stay shut at a key moment). Also an abundance of bizarre camera angles and moves that cut off heads and feet and added a presumably unintended air of dizzying psychedelia more appropriate for a production set half a decade later.
So how was the show? After a slow and stilted opening that featured mechanical rats and a rain-coated flasher with an Ipana toothpaste smile, this feel-good musical eventually built up momentum and good spirits, once an exceptionally game cast led by 20-year-old newcomer Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad settled into the infectious good will of the Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman score. Among the stars: Harvey Fierstein, who adapted Tom Meehan and Mark O’Donnell’s book from the Broadway show and returned in fine fettle as Tracy’s voluminous mom Edna; Martin Short as her failed inventor dad, and Ariana Grande as Tracy’s nerdy pal Penny. Kristin Chenoweth and Dove Cameron played Velma and Amber Von Tussle, the mother-daughter meanies who do everything they can to sabotage Tracy and Penny’s plans — especially after Tracy sets her sights on young Amber’s beau, Link Larkin, played swivel-hippedly by Garrett Clayton.
Clayton had the misfortune of being handed the show’s most shameless line: Telling Tracy he won’t participate in her plot to integrate the “Corny Collins Show” because he’s certain it’s going to make him a star, he dolefully tells her, “I’m not throwing away my shot” — a wince-inducing steal from Hamilton that surely would have gotten a laugh from the audience, had the telecast allowed for any actual actor-viewer interaction outside of Twitter and Facebook. Instead, every number seemed to cut abruptly to a commercial, negating the whole point of the audience.
There were over-the-top contributions from Rosie O’Donnell as the disciplinarian gym teacher and Sean Hayes as a dress-shop owner. But the standouts were Andrea Martin, ever exasperated (and limber) as Penny’s mother; Derek Hough, smooth (and lech-less) as Corny Collins; and especially Ephraim Sykes, as Seaweed J. Stubbs, the leader of the black kids, best dancer in the crowd and catcher of Penny’s eye. The eleven o’clock number, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” delivered with roof-raising authority by a blonde-wigged Jennifer Hudson as queen bee Motormoth Maybelle, followed her equally rousing duet with Fierstein, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful,”as the high points of the three-hour telecast.
The production team, lead by directors Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinsky (returning after The Wiz!) and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, seemed to overwhelm the camera crew. Perhaps it was the abundance of Derek McLane’s sets, which were fine with the interiors though the street scenes looked flat. Cameras were constantly trying to find the actors in awkward spaces, including a jail cell and the girls’ bedrooms. Mary Vogt provided the terrific costumes, a riot of sequins, boas and, in the case of Fierstein, decolletage you could stage an Olympic diving championship in.
It’s all a very far cry from John Waters’ 1988 indie to the smash Broadway musical and the 2007 John Travolta-led film. But the show’s message shone through and the Shaiman-Wittman score remains a marvel of craftsmanship. The cast album, already available, is probably terrific.