'Hairspray Live!': TV Review

HairsprayLive3_NBC - H 2016
Chris Haston/NBC

HairsprayLive3_NBC - H 2016

Way more aerosol than propellant.

Newcomer Maddie Baillio steps into the dancing shoes of Baltimore teen rebel Tracy Turnblad in NBC's latest musical event, also featuring Ariana Grande and Jennifer Hudson.

When producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan chose the effervescent 2002 show Hairspray as NBC's fourth annual live-musical event, they may not have imagined that unapologetic bigotry would see such an emboldened resurgence in post-election 2016 America. But who better to stomp on that sourness than Tracy Turnblad? The proudly plus-sized teen integrationist first brought the toe-tapping beat of racial inclusiveness and body-positivity to early-'60s Baltimore in the sweetly subversive 1988 John Waters comedy that spawned this monster Broadway hit, not to mention a breezy 2007 movie-musical remake.

The problem with delivering that timely message here was the absence of a star capable of selling Tracy's irrepressible spirit. Newcomer Maddie Baillio was rarely more than adequate in the role. She got off to an unfortunate start with the opener, "Good Morning, Baltimore," her vocals drowned in a muddy sound mix, and her physical presence cramped by chaotic street-scene staging. She did her best to manufacture the required perkiness, but the confidence was missing. Poor casting of her love interest, Elvis-wannabe Link Larkin, further dampened Baillio's chronic low energy. Garrett Clayton brought Ken Doll looks and some decent dance moves to the part, but not much charisma and only the reediest of voices.

It's a serious problem when secondary characters in a musical far outshine the leads, and that was very much the case here, notably Kristin Chenoweth as Velma Von Tussle, the arch villainess producer of Baltimore TV teen dance sensation The Corny Collins Show. And as the host of that show, Derek Hough made his cheerful slickness appealing, lighting up the screen every time he reappeared. But the imbalance turned what has always been a tremendously entertaining musical into a lumbering vehicle, made worse by awkward '60s-style "live" commercials and deadening segues to an overenthusiastic Darren Criss with the studio audience.

That was one of many elements for which NBC and show director Kenny Leon took their cue from Fox's Grease: Live, which aired in January and remains the best of the recent live TV musicals. With his buoyant direction of The Wiz Live! last December, Leon improved considerably on NBC's shaky start with The Sound of Music in 2013 and the unwatchable Peter Pan the following year. Enlisting Grease's live television director Alex Rudzinski to work alongside Leon made this seem a promising team.

And yet somehow the sparks flew only occasionally, most spectacularly when Jennifer Hudson, playing community leader Motormouth Maybelle, tore the roof off with the equality anthem "I Know Where I've Been." This was the one moment where the show's ongoing relevance really hit home, and the powerful, velvety roar of Hudson's lustrous vocals means her performance is the one people will be talking about.

The original finale number, "You Can't Stop the Beat," also worked, simply because that song slays — it's a shot of sheer triumphant joy, the musical equivalent of a cork popping. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell wisely resurrected his exuberant Broadway dance moves for the number, and it also was one of the few times the studio audience was actually seen, not just heard. Even with the audio glitches, clunky camera moves and unforgivable lighting that plagued this production throughout, that late blast of fun made up for some of the shortcomings.

The '60s retro score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman remains a consistent, spritzy pleasure, but too often the directors made mystifying choices that stifled the songs. One of the best numbers, "Run and Tell That," sung by Motormouth's son Seaweed J. Stubbs (Ephraim Sykes), another black character bristling at being a second-class citizen, unpacked a much-needed electrical charge. But then it fizzled with a cut to an underlit, underconceived ballet out of West Side Story that never took flight. It also shortchanged the intro of Seaweed's sister Little Inez; Shahadi Wright Joseph was a firecracker in the role but, like the terrific Hamilton alum Sykes, she got too little camera time.

The source material has become somewhat tamer with each new iteration — many fans of the Zac Efron movie possibly know Divine only as an adjective. But the one affectionate bow to Waters' original that has remained intact is the drag casting of Tracy's big-is-beautiful mother, Edna. After John Travolta's muffled take on the role in the 2007 movie, it was a commendable idea to return queer-culture flag-bearer Harvey Fierstein to the muumuus he first wore onstage 14 years ago. But the sense of mischief that the larger-than-life, frog-voiced stage veteran brought to the role on Broadway here became grating, and he was not ideally paired with Martin Short, whose shtick proved an odd fit for Edna's adoring husband, Wilbur.

Fierstein also penned the teleplay, based on the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan and drawn from both stage and screen versions. The story remains unchanged. Tracy shimmies into the dream of a lifetime when she lands a spot on The Corny Collins Show and catches the eye of resident heartthrob Link. That instantly makes an enemy of his vixen of a girlfriend, Velma's daughter Amber (Dove Cameron, strong).

At the same time, Tracy's big hair lands her in special ed, where she grooves to the moves of Seaweed and the school's African-American kids. A staunch opponent of segregation, Tracy uses her newfound popularity to start agitating for the lily-white Corny Collins Show to be integrated — beyond the once-a-month "Negro Day" hosted by Motormouth. Meanwhile, one look at Seaweed and Tracy's nerdy friend Penny Pingleton (Ariana Grande) falls hard, becoming a defiant "checkerboard chick" to the horror of her aptly named mother, Prudy (the reliably nuts Andrea Martin).

Grande is one of the biggest names in the cast and also one of its disappointments, appearing to conserve all her juice for her sections in the songs "Without Love" and "You Can't Stop the Beat" toward the end of the show. She did at least enter for the latter in fabulous white go-go boots and a killer sequined green number that made her look like vintage Tina Turner. If only.

Though Billy Eichner was wasted, there were cute cameos, including Rosie O'Donnell as a gym teacher and Sean Hayes as Mr. Pinky, owner of the Hefty Hideaway dress shop for the ample woman. Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur, who played Tracy in the Waters film and the original Broadway cast, respectively, showed up as Hideaway assistants. Set designer Derek McLane also included a nod to the show's progenitor and to his late great muse with street signage reading "Waters Plumbing" and "Divine Pet Food," flanked by a neon pink flamingo. One treat for Broadway geeks was the appearance of Kamilah Marshall, Judine Somerville and Shayna Steele, the original members of the show's girl-group chorus, the Dynamites. Looking and sounding flawless, they owned "Welcome to the '60s," their kick-ass backups stealing the spotlight from Baillio and Fierstein.

Sadly, that was easily achieved in a three-hour show hobbled by stop-start momentum and actors overwhelmed by busy direction. The impulse to have the production's two biggest names, Hudson and Grande, close the show with a song written for the movie, "Come So Far (Got So Far to Go)," made sense. But like so much else here, it succumbed to messy technical execution.

Airdate: Wednesday, Dec. 7, 8 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)
Cast: Maddie Baillio, Dove Cameron, Kristin Chenoweth, Garrett Clayton, Harvey Fierstein, Ariana Grande, Derek Hough, Jennifer Hudson, Martin Short, Ephraim Sykes, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Billy Eichner, Sean Hayes, Andrea Martin, Rosie O’Donnell
Directors: Kenny Leon, Alex Rudzinski
Executive producers: Craig Zadan, Neil Meron
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman
Book: Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan
Teleplay: Harvey Fierstein

Choreographer: Jerry Mitchell