Thursday, December 8, 2016

Hairspray Live!, Reviewed

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last few months, no doubt you are aware that last night was the much-touted production of Hairspray Live!, the latest live-broadcast televised musical. The first of the NBC series, The Sound of Music, received mixed reviews (including by me). Peter Pan was not much better, with some wildly hit-or-miss performances (Christian Borle as Smee and Kelli O'Hara as Mrs. Darling being hits and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook and Allison Williams as Peter Pan being misses). The Wiz, however, hit it out of the park, casting mostly experienced stage performers (notably David Alan Grier, Stephanie Mills, and Uzo Aduba). Fox's Grease and Rocky Horror Picture Show (which was actually pre-taped AND lip-synched) also received mixed reviews, with Grease receiving by far the more positive comments.

Obviously, there are many technical and logistical considerations when transporting a musical from a fixed Broadway stage in front of a live audience into a soundstage with multiple cameras. And it looks like NBC, at least, learned some lessons from its earlier mistakes. There were a few missteps in Hairspray Live!, mostly technical but a few artistic, but on the whole, this production was well done and had great energy, not quite reaching the level of The Wiz's success, but certainly much closer to it than to either The Sound of Music or Peter Pan.

Let's take a look at what exactly worked and didn't work in this production: the good, the bad, and the meh.


The Sets

The first visual you get in most theatrical productions, whether on stage or on screen, is the sets. The sets set the tone for the entire production (so to speak). And in this case, the tone was screamingly, deliciously, brilliantly 1962. From the storefronts with their 60s-looking signs, to the Corny Collins soundstage with its brightly glitter-coated hanging geometric shapes, to the marvelously tacky and screamingly 60s wallpaper in the von Tussle, Turnblad, and Pingleton homes, everything popped. It was just enough over the top to be larger-than-life without being obnoxious or cartoonish. 

The Costumes


Much like the sets, the costumes were just barely over the top, hitting the right note with screamingly bright colors, shiny fabrics, and character-appropriate cuts and silhouettes. I especially loved Amber von Tussle's series of hugely flared dresses with ruched bodices (which were stunningly gorgeous on Dove Cameron); the procession of shiny, skinny, impeccably tailored suits worn (and rocked) by Derek Hough as Corny Collins and Garrett Clayton as Link Larkin; the super clean-cut sweater vests and cardigans worn by the male ensemble; Edna's stunning red sequined finale gown; Jennifer Hudson's cleavage-baring purple and gold outfits as Motormouth Maybelle; and everything worn by the Dynamites. Speaking of which...

The Dynamites
NBC's decision to cast the Dynamites from the original Broadway cast in this version was arguably their best decision of the entire production. This trio simply lit up the screen on their every entrance. If anyone needed proof that experienced Broadway performers know how to bring that energy across in a live televised performance, these three were it. They still have the looks, the moves, and the vocal chops to blow the audience away. These ladies showed us how it is DONE. 

Derek Hough 

I was fortunate enough to see Hough on stage in the Radio City Spring Spectacular last year, so I was aware going in of just how much talent and charisma this guy can bring to the stage. And he did bring it! His Corny Collins was charming, funny, and nicely big-brotherly to the kids. He can hold his own vocally against anyone in the cast (with the possible exception of Jennifer Hudson), and of course his dancing is simply spectacular. He was an absolute delight in this role. And speaking of Jennifer Hudson...

Jennifer Hudson 

Holy moly, did she ever hit it out of the park on this one. She belted out "Big, Blond, and Beautiful" with perfect confidence and just a hint of brassiness, but then brought the audience to tears with her moving rendition of "I Know Where I've Been". I know there were some objections to her casting, since she can no longer be considered "big" (thank you, Weight Watchers). However, I found it absolutely believable that in the 1960s, when petite and willowy was fashionable, a woman with hips and boobs would have been thought of - and would have thought of herself - as "big." I was not bothered in the least that she was smaller than Edna and Tracy. Her Motormouth had a huge enough presence that I could have seen her as "big" even if she were 4'9" and weighed 80 pounds. 

Little Inez and Seaweed

Write this name down: Shahadi Wright Joseph. Now keep your eyes out for this little firecracker, because she is going places. Sweet, sassy, and dancing up a storm, I fell in love with her from the moment she came on screen all the way through to her ecstatic and joyful curtain call. This kid was born to be on stage. 

As for Seaweed, you should already know his name: Ephraim Sykes. He's been in television and movies, but his most well-known role to date is his stint in a little stage show called Hamilton - maybe you've heard of it? He proves himself a true triple threat as Seaweed, with impressive vocal and acting chops and some amazing athletic dancing. I'll be following his future career as well. 

Martin Short

I had somehow missed that Martin Short would be playing Wilbur Turnblad (I think I was just so relieved that it wasn't Christopher Walken), so I was thrilled when he came on. His Wilbur was just restrained enough to balance off Harvey Fierstein's Edna without losing Wilbur's delightfully sweet and funny personality. The Turnblads' duet of "Timeless" has never been a number that I'm particularly fond of, but I absolutely loved their rendition. They had a lovely, believable chemistry and affection, and the number was a beautiful, tender, calm island amidst the energetic storm of Act 2. And the icing on the cake was the way he rocked those crazy suits. 

Nods to the Original(s)

In addition to the casting of the Dynamites and Harvey Fierstein from the original Broadway production, this production threw in a bunch of little nods to both the original movie version and the Broadway show: the "Divine Pet Food" sign honoring the original movie Edna (just in case you didn't make the connection, they included a pink neon flamingo harking back to Divine's role in another John Waters film, "Pink Flamingos"); the vertical bed that pulls apart to put Tracy right in the street for "Good Morning, Baltimore" just like the Broadway version; and cameos by Rikki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur (movie Tracy and original Broadway Tracy, respectively) in "Welcome to the '60s". Fun stuff and a nice recognition of the fans. 

The 60s-Themed Commercials 

Although I didn't love the Oreo ad that was built into the actual show by having Corny Collins do it, I did love all the 1960s-style ads that ran during the telecast. It was a fun throwback that helped keep me in the world of the show despite the annoying backstage interstitials. Speaking of which...


The Backstage Camera During Commercials

I kind of enjoyed the preshow backstage glimpses with Darrin Criss, but I found that the constant continued sweeps from the performance to backstage as a commercial break really pulled me out of the world of the show. Save those clips of fast costume changes and actors jumping into golf carts to get to the next set for showing in the corner during the curtain call or the credits, or post them online after the show, but don't keep pulling us from the show world into the real world! It was too jarring. 

The Technical Glitches

Just as in live onstage theatre, live televised theatre can have its share of technical glitches, and it did last night. Maddie Baillio's microphone seemed to cut out a couple of times during "Good Morning, Baltimore" (although she was noticeably winded during that number, so it's possible she just dropped a lyric). It looked like a lighting cue was called early in the transition of "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" out of the girls' homes, as Tracy was plunged into darkness for a second. The most obvious "oops" was an audible stage manager's call of "30 seconds!" before going to commercial. And not surprisingly, there were a few scenes where a cameraman was briefly caught in a shot; fortunately, most of these happened when there were actors playing cameramen around, so it wasn't as obvious or as jarring as it might have been. Given the complexity of some of the choreographed camera movements, it's pretty impressive that it didn't happen more often than it did. Speaking of camera work...

The Camera Work

I may be speaking as a live theatre aficionado, but musicals benefit from longer shots and less frenetic camera work than scripts written for the screen. There were many times when I wanted a wider shot and a more prolonged one, but instead I got a couple seconds of a tight closeup with an immediate cut to another tight closeup of different actors. Stage actors act with their whole bodies, particularly in musicals! Let us see the whole thing!

In addition, they seemed to be using standard handheld cameras as well as steadicams, and the difference was noticeable, as some of the handheld cameras were visibly shaky. I didn't mind when those shots only lasted three seconds. 

To be fair, there were also some really well-done long, swooping shots that caught the action nicely. The best of these was the long shot moving from the outside of Maybelle's into the inside during "Run and Tell That", when Seaweed performed his impressive jump up onto the counter. Wow! I Also enjoyed the long shot of Edna riding the hotdog cart down the street. But I wish there had been a lot more shots like those two. 

Misbehaving Sets and Props and Costumes

There were several instances of sets and props not doing what they were supposed to do: the shoulderpads wouldn't quite fit into Amber's dress during "Mama I'm a Big Girl Now"; the door to Maybelle's didn't shut properly (members of the ensemble immediately fixed it), the giant hairspray can didn't shut properly (AND NO ONE FIXED IT FOR, LIKE, EVER), Kristin Chenoweth had a strap hanging out of her pink gown for a while. And while it may not quite count as a misbehaving set, prop, or costume, I caught Garrett Clayton as Link Larkin wiping his nose on his sleeve a couple of times. I can sympathize, because man have I been there (I still have nightmares about a freeze in 42nd Street when my nose was literally dripping onto a table), but at least try to be subtle about it, 'kay? 

Weird Anachronisms
No television anchor or reporter would have this style of facial hair in 1962. They just wouldn't. Was it really that difficult to either get the actor to shave or cast someone in this throwaway little part who would? A few of the costumes were also pushing the timeline either forward or backward, but I'll give them a little leeway on that, since some of the costumes were veering toward fantastical anyway.

 Script Changes

There are times when a script can - and should - be "refreshed" and updated, but Hairspray is not an appropriate show for that. Adding a sly reference to Hamilton by changing Link's line to "I can't throw away my shot!" (in reference to his refusal to join the desegregation march on the studio for fear of being fired) was anachronistic and pulled me out of the world of the show.

There was also a lot of disappointment that the number "Big Dollhouse" was not included. Although the number is part of the stage musical, it was not used in the 2007 film. Perhaps the directors thought there were too many big production numbers, but this particular number has a different style and feel from many of the others in the show, and I think they missed out on an opportunity for some visual and musical variety by cutting it.

And what was with Link singing "It Takes Two" to everyone, not just Tracy? Kind of missed the point there, didn't ya? And poor Tracy isn't even front and center, she's pushed off to the side somewhere.

Inconsistent Audience Reactions

Due to all the backstage footage during commercials, we knew perfectly well that there was an audience at the soundstage. However, the production couldn't seem to decide if it wanted to have live audience reactions or not. There were many laugh lines and shoulda-been-funny takes that fell flat because there was no laughter, and many songs ended in silence. But every now and then there would be some audience applause at the end of a number. I think it could have been made to work either way, but the inconsistency of it kept the pacing and rhythm off balance.


Penny and Link

As well as aspects that were terrific or lousy, there were a few more aspects that weren't bad, but they just didn't quite make it to the level they should or could have been at. A few of the performances were serviceable without being memorable. They didn't detract from the production, but they didn't really add to it, either. For me, Ariana Grande's Penny Pingleton and Garrett Clayton's Link Larkin both fell into that category. Grande was working really hard at being dorky and awkward, but she was trying just a little too hard. She never quite made it from "acting gawky" to "being gawky", and it made her final transformation into a confident "pretty girl" less believable. But kudos to her for also working hard to change her vocal technique from breathy pop to better-supported legit singing. She didn't quite manage to hold her own against Jennifer Hudson, but that's hardly a fair criticism. And Garrett Clayton seemed to be cast mainly for his physical resemblance to Zac Efron. He was pretty enough, but his vocals were sometimes pitchy and he just didn't exude enough charm to make me believe that all the girls (or Tracy) were in love with him. He wasn't bad; he was just kind of...forgettable.

The Lighting

Lighting was enough of a hit-or-miss to fall under "meh" rather than strictly good or bad. When it was bad, it was distracting, but when it was good, it was stunning. One of the scenes in the alley (I think it was the beginning of "Run and Tell That") was gorgeously lit at the perfect angles to create artistic and crisp shadows from both actors and set pieces, and I was impressed that they managed to avoid any extraneous shadows. It was just gorgeous. But "Good Morning, Baltimore" felt like it must be 4am, it was so dark, and there were some tight scenes where the actors were throwing shadows all over each others' faces.

Maddie Baillio

I hate to criticize her performance, especially because it wasn't bad. But it left me wanting more. She captured Tracy's sweetness and innocence, but I never bought into her passion and drive. I didn't believe that she really wanted to grow up to be the first woman president, or that she would be willing to risk her job and her freedom by protesting at the studio, or even that she would defy her mom to audition for the Corny Collins show to begin with. I'd like to see her in other roles, because she certainly has more than a little talent. She has a terrific voice, but she needs to develop a bit more stamina (or perhaps just calm her nerves, as her breathlessness was more of a problem early on) and work on her dance and acting to bring it up to the next level.

Kristin Chenoweth

[Dodges rocks, sticks, and rotten tomatoes] I know, it's practically heresy to say that Chenoweth was less than amazing, but she just didn't do it for me. I think my issue was mostly that she was playing a different style and level than the rest of the cast. I do theatrical consulting, and one of the questions on our ballot is, "Were the actors all in the same show?" In other words, were they all using the same dramatic style (is it farce, is it camp, is it melodrama?) and the same energy level? In this case, Chenoweth felt much campier than the cast as a whole; mugging directly to the camera, tossing off coloratura notes just to prove she can, and generally being more artificial and heavy-handed with the role than she needed to be. Again, not horrible, not even bad, just disappointing because I know she could have been so much better.


This review may make it seem like I didn't really like the production, and that is completely untrue. I liked it, very much, and I think it is only slightly behind The Wiz in terms of the quality of the live televised musicals put on in the last few years. But it goes to prove that ANY theatrical production, no matter how fat its budget, no matter how experienced and talented its production staff and cast, no matter how good its technical resources, no matter how well-written its material, no matter how well-planned and well-rehearsed its performance, can stand to be tweaked and improved. The joy of live theatre is that we can always do better, we can always bring something else to the table, we can always add one more enhancement or cut out one more lagging beat or tighten up one more detail.

So if you're ever involved in a show and someone tells you about something that they think should have been different, just remember that even the pros can benefit from listening to the impression of an audience member!!

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