Review: Hairspray Live!
Well, Hairspray Live!, the eagerly anticipated live-television event of this December has come and gone and I am thrilled to report that this one was better than most. It hit many of its marks and remained true to the beloved stage production on which it is based, yet I still feel like there were too many missteps to claim joyous rapture.
Let's start with the all around sound quality. This was one of the worst live musicals for being able to understand what was coming out of people's mouths. Whether microphones were spotty or went dead altogether, it was clear that whoever was in charge of sound did not trouble shoot very carefully. This became a particular problem when actors (Derek Hough, Ariana Grande) whose articulation was clipped or breathy were front and center. Enough lyrics were lost in Hairspray Live! to create a separate one-act musical.
I've always been particularly drawn to the score of Hairspray, and this cast mostly sang it well. The final number, "You Can't Stop the Beat" is a jubilant, kinetic call to self-acceptance and Hairspray Live! made it explode just like it did on the Broadway stage. It was also nice to revisit Jerry Mitchell's choreography for that song: a popping, leaping, hip-thrusting hug! It's true that most of the Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman score played well, but more so when they didn't try to open up the action to too many locations. When they did this, HHairspray Live! looked sparsely populated and musical numbers fizzled. I've never been a fan of the song "Ladies Choice" which did not appear in the original stage production but was interpolated into the film. It's a mediocre song in a score that mostly shines. I wish this had been excised in favor of the campy "The Big Dollhouse" which is absent here and whole lot more fun.
Let's talk performances. This is, perhaps, where Hairspray Live! is at its most uneven. Let's talk "adult" roles first: I am ecstatic that Harvey Fierstein got to preserve his Edna Turnblad for posterity. Fierstein can convey vulnerability wrapped in brazen ballsy-ness better than just about anyone. He never fails to exalt camp while painting an honest character. As Edna's husband Wilbur, Martin Short's wacky, over-the-top zaniness is perfect here. Short can sometimes be too much, but this role demands it and he (surprisingly) remains tethered to believability. His chemistry with Fierstein is warm and wonderful, a couple who are truly in love. Derek Hough as Corny Collins, the slick and open-minded host of a Baltimore dance show, can dance (this we knew) but his performance was hectic and not that interesting or textured. Broadway favorite Kristin Chenoweth was a blast of sass and snootiness as the piece's villain Velma Von Tussle, though she did sound vocally uncomfortable in her big number "Miss Baltimore Crabs". Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle, the record store owning D.J., is a one-note actress...until she starts to sing, that is. Her two big numbers, "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" and "I Know Where I've Been" were the vocal highlights of the evening, the latter sung with such intensity and emotion that it became palpable, breaking the barrier of the television screen and reaching into our hearts. Though, one has to wonder why a bigger actress wasn’t cast to sing, with justification, the lyrics of the former.
Now: the teens. Allow me to be a squealing fanboy for just a minute. Is there a more handsome and quirky young actor than Garrett Clayton who played Link Larkin in Hairspray Live!? He has a magnetic quality that draws you in. He's also a very good dancer. The only problem I have with him (switch back to critic hat) is that he appears trapped inside himself, as if so much is going on inside but never breaks the surface and connects with others. It's particularly apparent in scenes between him and Tracy Turnblad, the young female lead, since its hard to convey romance without connection. Ariana Grande as the off-beat Penny Pingleton is serviceable in the role, but, like Clayton, seems to have a disconnect where connecting is concerned. Dove Cameron, however, one of the most-talented young actresses in the business, is a comedic blast of fresh air as the petulant, devious Amber Von Tussle. Anyone who had seen her brilliant turn as two fully realized, separate characters on the Disney Channel's Liv & Maddie (where she plays twins) knows that this young lady is something special. In many ways, I would have liked to see what she could do with the role of Penny. Ephraim Sykes as the son of Motormouth Maybelle and the object of Penny's interracial romance, is charismatic, a terrific singer and dancer, and gives the character a slight edge which has been missing in past interpretations. Finally, there was Tracy herself, played by Maddie Baillio. I wanted to love her. I wanted her to wrap me up in her convictions and zest for life, but from the production’s start “Good Morning, Baltimore”, I felt merely happy to know her and never moved beyond that. Vocally, she sounded good, but the performance never seemed to be more than a big smile and loud singing. We all know that Tracy, like her mother, is much more than this.
A few cameos worth mentioning: Rosie O'Donnell was near perfection as an aggressive female gym teacher steroetype, Sean Hayes, appropriately swishy as a fashion designer of clothes for large women, and Andrea Martin sour and fanatical as Prudy Pingleton, Penny's psychotically conservative mother. Each shined without being too much. Special mention should be made for best supporting hairpiece in O'Donnell's delightfully butch wig.
In general, I found myself going with Hairspray Live! more than I went against it. If last year's The Wiz was more enjoyable for me, Hairspray had an energy (fanned by the presence of a live-audience) that might make it technically the best yet of the live musical oeuvre. I do wish that producers would take a chance on lesser-known, family friendly titles, but I guess there just isn't that kind of financial courage behind advertisers. I’m glad Hairspray Live! happened and that the producers continue to learn, evolve and make these magical productions happen.