Continuing the tradition that NBC has of airing musicals live, this year they tackled Hairspray. With an all-star cast of Harvey Fierstein, Jennifer Hudson, Derek Hough, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Ariana Grande, Dove Cameron, and Kristin Chenoweth, I had high expectations for this show. Hairspray: Live did a good job paying homage to the original dance movie, Broadway musical, and musical movie; however, it unfortunately fell flat.
NBC held a nation-wide search to find their Tracy Turnblad. Newcomer Maddie Baillio was cast to play this iconic lead role. Despite a few missed song lyrics (which could be due to faulty sound equipment), Maddie did a good job capturing the essence of Tracy Turnblad’s spirit of being an overcomer. One of the highlights of the evening was when Ricki Lake (Tracy Turnblad in the original dance movie) and Marissa Jaret Winokur (Tracy Turnblad in the original Broadway musical) helped makeover Tracy and Edna during the song “Welcome to the 60’s” because it was as if the previous Tracys were passing the baton to Maddie, the new Tracy.
I was rooting for Ariana Grande to do well as her role of Penny Pingleton. She is a lovely girl who does well singing her own pop songs, but her comedic timing was off so Penny’s one-liners were missed by the audience. The character of Penny Pingleton is supposed to be an ugly duckling story of a sheltered girl who is always in the background to a girl who stands up and comes out of her shell for the love she finds in Seaweed. Unfortunately Ariana did not successfully portray her character’s arc.
The cast members who are theater-natives brightly shined in this production. The audience had the honor to see Harvey Fierstein return to his Tony Award winning role of Edna Turnblad. The incomparable Kristin Chenoweth was right at home during her performance of “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” Two-time Tony Award winner Andrea Martin, probably best known for her role in the beloved My Big Fat Greek Wedding movies, was impactful during her limited screen time as Prudence Pingleton. Ephraim Sykes (Hamilton, Motown the Musical, Newsies, Memphis, and The Little Mermaid) was excellent as Seaweed. Oscar winner, Jennifer Hudson, stole the show with her rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” as Motormouth Mabel.
I am sure casting Derek Hough as Corny Collins helped the cast with their choreography for their big dance numbers. The ensemble numbers were great. However, it was evident that Derek Hough is a dancer who sings. He held his own and did the best he could in his role. A clever addition that NBC did was that it incorporated commercials into the live show. Since the musical of “Hairspray” is about the Corny Collins television show, it included a live commercial for Toyota.
NBC was trying to cater to a younger audience by casting Disney channel’s Dove Cameron and Garrett Clayton. I was impressed by Dove Cameron’s performance as Amber Von Tussle. I cannot say the same for Garrett Clayton’s performance as Link Larkin. Link is not just a good looking guy who can sing and dance. He is a character whose life is turned right-side up when he meets Tracy. Garrett’s acting did not show his character’s transformation.
It was very challenging to perform live theater without the energy of a live audience. Learning from FOX’s Grease: Live (check out my review here), NBC incorporated a live audience for Hairspray: Live actors. Due to competing priorities there was not much interaction with the live audience, so the performances fell flat. Maybe if NBC was not cutting to different locations where Hairspray: Live viewing parties were or incorporating Darren Criss’ commentary throughout the show, the actors and live audience could have established a relationship whose energy could have resonated for the viewing audience.
You’ve come a long way, NBC. I applaud you for choosing Hairspray this year since race relations in this world are extremely strained. You are far from the Sound of Music: Live and Peter Pan: Live days. Keep improving. I look forward to next year’s live musical, Bye Bye Birdie.