Review: Hairspray Live!

NBC is no stranger to the live musical genre, having already produced “The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan” and last year’s “The Wiz.” So you’d think that by now, they’ve got this down to a science. The answer is mostly yes – with a large and unfortunate no or two along the way.

I’ve always loved “Hairspray” and was excited when NBC announced the show as its next foray into live theatre on TV. My anticipation increased even more when local actress Maddie Baillio was cast as Tracy Turnblad. As the cast announcements continued, it seemed like this would be hard to foul up. Sadly, they still found a way in some places.

It’s important to note up front that Baillio is a revelation as Tracy. The 20-year-old Texas native was certainly a standout in a very well cast production. Her smile was infectious but my favorite moment was when she teared up during Jennifer Hudson’s show-stopping rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been.” It’s easy to believe that it was more of a “wow I’m really here” moment than a character choice but it was the most genuine moment of the entire evening.

Hudson would certainly be my first pick for the best of the bunch, even exceeding Baillio and the wonderful Kristin Chenoweth. As Motormouth Maybelle, Hudson was excellent but took things to an entirely unbelievable level with her singing. “I Know Where I’ve Been” was the best rendition I’ve ever heard and the hands-down standout number of the show. Chenoweth shined as Velma von Tussle and makes it clear why she’s a Tony-winning Broadway favorite.

Other excellent performances were delivered by Derek Hough as Corny Collins, showing off a singing voice I don’t think many of us realized that he had, while Dove Cameron (known for Disney Channel’s “Liv & Maddie”) was perfect as Amber von Tussle. It was easy to believe that she and Chenoweth were mother and daughter – their chemistry was excellent. Harvey Fierstein, returning for the umpteenth time to the role of Edna Turnblad, was as good as ever although his usually standout number “Timeless to Me” with “husband” Martin Short did fall a bit flat, especially without the usual ad-lib filled encore. Ephraim Sykes was terrific as Seaweed and Broadway veteran Andrea Martin (Tony winner for the recent “Pippin” revival) was hilarious as Prudy Pingleton. The ensemble was well-cast with a few nice supporting roles for former “Hairspray” cast members from various productions. There were some lovely cameos as well, including Sean Hayes (who starred with Kristin Chenoweth on Broadway in “Promises, Promises”) as Mr. Pinky. But the award for the best (and cleverest) cameo goes to Ricki Lake (the original Tracy in the non-musical 1988 film) and Marissa Jaret Winokur (the original Broadway Tracy) as two of the dancers at Mr. Pinky’s.

The only two cast members that fell flat to me were sadly two of the usually more standout roles. Garrett Clayton was flat as Link Larkin (a role originated by “Glee” star Matthew Morrison in New York) while Ariana Grande was fine when acting as Penny Pingleton, but failed in the one place she should have succeeded – her singing.

But the biggest problem of this production was the technical aspects. One of the amazing things about live theatre is that the actors must perform the piece eight times a week flawlessly. Sure, things happen and go wrong from time to time, but generally speaking, if you go to a Broadway show you’ll see roughly the same show each time despite actor injuries, illnesses or replacements. They’re that good. So how is it that a show that has been in rehearsals for weeks and has a technical staff of hundreds can have so many issues? It started early during “Good Morning Baltimore” and continued throughout the show with many missed sound and light cues. There was also an issue with some cameras that made it appear in some shots as if the cast was lip-syncing (which they were not). I can only attribute this to a digital delay from those remote, wireless cameras to the main video mixer. You sometimes see this phenomenon at ballparks on the main scoreboard with the anthem singer, as an example, seemingly out of sync with their sound. This is fine when you can clearly see the person singing down on the field but looks terrible and is very distracting during a closeup on a large screen TV. You could also heard director cues “30 seconds folks” during “Timeless to Me” and a crowd cheering nearby for no apparent reason during the book scene prior to that number. Darren Criss, who I usually like, was not necessary as a “host” and the behind-the-scenes segments before and after commercial breaks fell flat for the most part.

Even with the technical glitches, this was probably NBC’s best production so far, although I don’t personally believe it passed FOX TV’s “Grease Live” in overall quality, although this cast was, as a whole, much better. Next year, the musical will be “Bye Bye Birdie” featuring Jennifer Lopez. Will NBC learn from their continued mistakes or will we want to say “Bye Bye” before the end of the first act? Time will tell.

***1/2 out of *****
“Hairspray Live”
Based on “Hairspray” by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Written by Harvey Fierstein
Composed by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by Kenny Leon & Alex Rudzinski
NBC Television
Photo: Derek Hough as Corny Collins, Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad, Dove Cameron as Amber von Tussle and the ensemble in “Hairspray Live” on NBC Television

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