‘Hairspray Live’ can't hit the same highs as last year's NBC musical

NOSELL

NBC

 

Sunday, December 11, 2016 - 4:24pm

After the creative and ratings success of “Grease Live,” NBC found themselves under substantial pressure for their next musical: “Hairspray.” Under the direction of Thomas Kail (“Hamilton”), “Grease” raised the bar for what a live TV musical could do. NBC reacted by increasing the scale of “Hairspray.” They moved production from a soundstage in New York to the Universal backlot in Los Angeles. They had numbers both outdoors and indoors and expanded the larger production numbers. However, “Hairspray” couldn’t quite find energy in the expansive production. There were certainly successful production numbers and very strong performances, but technical issues and slower scenes killed any momentum other elements of the telecast were building.

In an effort to expand their production based on the standards set by “Grease,” the producers decided to set many of their big musical numbers outside, leading to mixed results. Having “Good Morning Baltimore” take place as it’s getting dark, with artificial light attempting to make it feel like morning, feels strange and out of place. Still, the outdoor set, made to look like a Baltimore street, helped numbers like “Welcome to the ’60s” feel like they were taking place outdoors in the city (the dark setting didn’t hurt that number).

Like all of the live musicals that came before it, the book scenes dragged, preventing the show from gaining any real momentum. A lot of the big musical numbers were good with so much energy. Still, it seemed like after every musical number, there was a block of dialogue that moved slowly. However, the show ended on a positive note with “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” That number is probably a big part of why the show is as successful as it is. It’s full of singing and dancing and gives each character their moment in the spotlight. It never seems to stop.

Like other NBC musicals of the past, “Hairspray Live” had a very strong cast, with some performances verging on extraordinary. Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) took on the supporting role of Motormouth Maybelle and owned every second she was on screen with two of the best songs in the show, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Her voice is so pure and so strong that she stole the show, much like Audra McDonald did in “The Sound of Music.” Kristin Chenoweth (“Pushing Daisies”) knows how to play a diva, and she earned some of the biggest laughs of the show as Velma Von Tussle. Harvey Fierstein (who won a Tony for originating Edna Turnblad on Broadway) is clearly having fun returning to his role, and that helped bring Edna to life.

However, there were also performances that were passable at best. Ariana Grande (“Scream Queens”) took on the role of Penny Pingleton and didn’t do much with it. Sure, she has a good voice, but there was so much comic potential she left on the table. I also have mixed feelings about newcomer Maddie Baillio. On the one hand, she didn’t do anything wrong — her voice was fine and she acted decently. But she didn’t do anything to stand out as a lead actress.

There’s still one element of the “Hairspray” broadcast that’s very difficult to reconcile: the horrific technical issues. Throughout the broadcast, seemingly small mistakes kept piling up. During “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now,” the lights briefly blacked out on Tracy in her bedroom. A minute later, the set pulled up and revealed another part of the scene. Later, there were cuts to incorrect cameras (including in the powerful number “I Know Where I’ve Been”). Look, I understand broadcasts like this take substantial effort and are extremely hard to pull off, but wrong lighting and camera cues are just lazy. With increased scale comes increased difficulty, which leaves no room for screwups like that.

Though “Hairspray” is far from the best musical I’ve seen, it still holds a special place in my heart. It was the first show I saw on Broadway a decade ago, and the movie is one of my favorite movie-musicals. Still, this live production was not nearly as good as it could’ve been. They tried to replicate the success of “Grease,” but ended up with a show that had some awful technical issues, slow book scenes that nearly overpowered the strong cast and, overall, really good musical numbers.