Hairspray (NBC Live)

Hairspray (NBC Live)

1/21/17 (Sat)

Hairspray was a surprising choice as one of the NBC Live offerings. It seems too new for reinvention: it closed on Broadway less than ten years ago, and a (misguided) film version was released around the same time, meaning that a good portion of the audience will have seen it in some form or other in the not-too-distant past. Also, it is not an iconic title like past productions The Sound of Music or Grease, nor were there many big names in the cast as in The Wiz. As much as I personally love musicals, I had to wonder where NBC thought they were going to find an audience. It does deliver a feel-good message in roughly the same musical style as the popular Grease, which maybe they thought would be an attraction. In any case, it’s a terrific stage show, and they had the very good sense to retain the inimitable Harvey Fierstein as the mother. Despite the low ratings from the actual broadcast last month, I was eager to catch it. 

The production itself was right on. The director opened up the action by shuffling performers adeptly among various sound stages, moving back to the approach that worked so well for The Sound of Music. He got carried away in the opening number with the street scene, trying too hard to make it look like a movie rather than a live performance. But he soon found his groove with a nice balance between live and screen, between long shots and close-ups. Grease was obviously an inspiration – the co-director of that show, Alex Rudzinski, joined Kenny Leon here – with outdoor shots, the inclusion of live audiences and shots of the actors between scenes, an approach that worked nicely once again. The lively choreography by Jerry Mitchell seemed drawn largely from his work on the stage show. The camerawork seemed less rehearsed than in previous shows, failing to keep up with the story in some cases, especially in the dance scenes. Slight mishaps like a camera slipping into view are inevitable in a live broadcast, but NBC, on their fourth live show, should have a better grip on the overall flow by now. One big irritant was the introduction this time of an MC who popped in at various times to tell us how great the show was going and interview audiences in various cities. I haven’t a clue as to what went through the heads of the producers unless they needed time for set changes, in which case they should get back to the drawing board. A musical with this much energy shouldn’t need an artificial boost from an MC oohing and aahing at every turn. I’m glad I was watching this on tape so that I could skip those parts.

The musical itself holds up nicely in a TV format, though the songs do become repetitive after a while. Several numbers seem to have exactly the same tempo, and the lyrics in general are far too wordy in their attempt to land a joke with every line, something I noticed as well with these writers in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. I started to wonder if it might not be better off with some judicious song cuts. The script, though, succeeds beautifully, managing to stay on the light-hearted side of a potentially treacly subject and giving all the main characters their due. A reference to Debbie Reynolds stood out given her death just a few weeks after this broadcast.

The acting was top-notch all around, including a spirited performance by first-timer Maddie Baillio playing the lead. It was a bit scary seeing Fierstein in drag from such a close distance, but he was perfect in the role and the lynchpin of the show. His unashamed schtick highlighted what was missing from the film version. I’m glad they recorded his role for posterity. Martin Short as the husband was appropriately wacky and a huge improvement over his film counterpart; Kristin Chenoweth was her usual amazing self, though I’m still not wild about her big number “Miss Baltimore Crabs”; and Jennifer Hudson blew everyone on stage away in her big numbers without resorting to typical overheated melisma mode (they fortunately dropped her dumb rhyming dialogue). I didn’t know any of the younger performers, but they were fine, especially Dove Cameron as Amber.

This was overall the best of NBC’s Live shows since The Sound of Music. It’s fortunate, though, that they had already announced their next offering before this broadcast, since it apparently had the worst ratings yet. That next show is Bye Bye Birdie with Jennifer Lopez, a great title with a major star set in the same nostalgic late-50s era as Grease and Hairspray. That one has a fantastic score, lots of juicy character roles and excellent opportunities for “opening up”. It’s old-fashioned in a good way, and hopefully they can resist the opportunity for updating it too much – the Hispanic references presumably will need to go, even with Lopez playing the role, but let’s see what they do with her stated dream to be nothing more than “an English teacher’s wife”. Depending on the casting — hey, how about a real rock star in the Birdie role? — this could be a biggie.

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