Hairspray Live! is just the type of musical we need right now. It’s bright, colorful, and fun. If you can’t get up and dance to the finale anthem, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” then you’re truly dead inside. NBC stepped up the production value for their latest musical theater outing, and there were some truly entertaining moments.
The musical adaptation (you know, the second movie version) of the John Waters’ cult comedy came out less than 10 years ago, so when it was originally announced as the latest outing, I was curious. It was obviously chosen because it boasts a large, diverse cast with a winning and rambunctious score, but I’m not sure any of the executives could have predicted how vital a show like Hairspray really is at the moment. With Donald Trump’s inauguration looming, we all need something to smile and dance to. A message of inclusion and acceptance definitely doesn’t hurt either.
In case you missed the original…or the stage musical…or the movie version of the stage musical, Hairspray Live! follows plump Tracy Turnblad as she gains popularity on a dance show in 1960’s Baltimore. What starts as a dream to become famous turns into an opportunity to create social change and end segregation and bigotry. Tracy is a dream role for any young actress, and the show has a tendency to cast an unknown in the role. This time around, they selected Maddie Baillio, and she’s a charming discovery.
You can almost imagine the NBC executives watching the mega-successful (and Emmy-winning) production of Grease Live! on FOX and thinking they need to step up their game. The sets are massive and the costumes are top-notch. They could easily find themselves in the awards conversation when Emmy season kicks back into high gear. There are golf carts on hand to zoom the cast members from set to set all the while Glee star Darren Criss comments at the commercial breaks. Commentary during the breaks is unnecessary by the way. Buck this trend, I beg you.
When the Broadway veterans are on stage, they take control of every scene. Harvey Fierstein, reprising his role as the gravelly voiced, curvaceous matron Edna, is a joy to watch, and there is a shot of him riding on a hot dog cart in “Welcome to the 60’s” that made me howl with gleeful laughter. Kristin Chenoweth, as the racist Velma Von Tussle, is the performance we don’t deserve. She belts those high notes with such an assured force that would make any skeptical audience member stand up and cheer. Jennifer Hudson, as expected, blows the roof off of the entire downtown Baltimore strip. Shout out to the directors for making sure “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now” remained in this version.
Is it perfect? Not entirely. The staging feels less assured than the performances with the camera continually moving back and forth out of the performers’ way. Garrett Clayton is also woefully miscast as Tracy’s love interest, Link Larkin. Note to the casual viewer: don’t watch crime saga King Cobra, with Clayton as gay porn star Brent Corrigan, before tuning into this feel good musical spectacular—every seductive teenage look will take an entirely different feeling. Sorry, bud. You make Zac Efron look like Brando.
But, hey, who am I to judge something so feel good and eager to reassure you that change is possible? The production succeeds because its heart is in the right place. It’s breezy material performed with exhuberance.
Does the production have a shot during awards season? It could follow in Grease Live!’s footsteps considering the sheer size of the show. The period nature of the musical doesn’t hurt either. Grease Live! had the advantage of coming out after the holidays (it debuted in late January), and its ratings definitely had the industry talking for months.
Special Class Program/TV Movie
Harvey Fierstein, Limited Series/Movie Supporting Actor
Kristin Chenoweth, Limited Series/Movie Supporting Actress