Getting into several Facebook chats about “Hairspray Live!” on NBC last night prompted me to throw some thoughts down on le blog:
We are now four shows into NBC’s live holiday musical presentation, with “Bye Bye Birdie” already promised as No. 5, next December. Overall, as someone who loves musical theater, I wholeheartedly support the idea, even if NBC is still clearly struggling with the execution.
The first two — “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan” — suffered from miscasting at the top of their bills and generally sterile environments that seemed to suck the life out of the live presentation. Carrie Underwood’s out-of-her-element status as Maria in “Sound of Music” was only amplified by the genuine musical theater masters surrounding here in Audra McDonald, Christian Borle and others. Allison Williams would just never pass for the boy who never wanted to grow up.
Last year’s “The Wiz” was the most successful effort thus far, bringing back a show that seemed to have been left in the 20th century and giving it new vigor with a fairly solid production.
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With “Hairspray,” NBC seemed to be trying to up its game with a number of stars and a production that seemed more like trying to present a live movie than a live stage production. And the ambition seemed to outpace the resources. While at times the camera choreography was kind of dazzling, and you sometimes wondered how things were working — the coordination of the three settings on “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now,” for example — there were also times the show couldn’t overcome the challenges it presented itself.
It was immediately disconcerting to see “Good Morning Baltimore” performed at what was clearly dusk, given the Southern California sky in the background. Prior to the broadcast, producers were crowing about the outdoor sets, but the after-dark production created some weird moments like the journey to Motormouth Maybelle’s record shop where the stark lighting and long shadows made it look more like an urban crime drama than a musical. And did Maybelle forget to pay the lighting bill in her shop?
The ambitious production looked like a technical minefield, and a few got stepped on in the nearly three-hour show. Scaling ambitions to resources may be the next lesson to learn with these projects.
The performances were uniformly solid to outstanding. The loudest stunt-casting grumbling regarded Ariana Grande as Penny Pingleton, but she had one of the terrific turns of the night — having kids who were in their early teens when she was on the Nickelodeon show “Victorious,” it did seem she was playing her character from that show in the early scenes. The adult quartet of Harvey Fierstein reprising his Broadway turn as Edna Turnblad, Martin Short as her devoted husband Wilbur, Kristin Chenoweth as Velma Von Tussle and Jennifer Hudson as Maybelle lead the show and had great support from veteran Andrea Martin in a scene-stealing turns as Penny’s mom. Among the kids, Ephraim Sykes as Seaweed and Garrett Clayton as Link had breakout performances. Maddie Baillio was solid but not quite inspiring as the lead, Tracy Turnblad.
NBC did try to pump life into the proceedings with a live audience in certain parts of the show and remotes from watch parties around the country. It reached a point where it felt like we were being told this was great, rather than letting the show speak for itself. The live commercials were kind of fun, in a small dose. Those, combined with lots of other commercials and the remotes did make it feel like the show was being stretched as far as it could, and often took us out of the actual musical. Calm down, NBC.
Maybe the thing I liked most of all was this musical being shown at this time. “Hairspray” in its simplest form is about the integration of teenage dance party TV show in 1962. But in macro, it is about how much better the world is when people look past their physical and cultural differences and come together. When the 1988 movie and then the 2002 musical (and then 2007 movie musical), came out, the blatant institutional racism and attitudes expressed by Velma and others came across as clearly ridiculous, at the least.
Here, at the end of 2016, we sit at one of the most divided moments in most of our memories, and the combination of the show’s reminder of the not-too-distant past and its optimism were more than welcome.