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TV Review: ‘Hairspray Live!’

Dynamic, colorful, and stacked with stellar performances, NBC’s ‘Hairspray Live!’ is its best musical yet

With:
Maddie Baillio, Dove Cameron, Kristin Chenoweth, Garrett Clayton, Harvey Fierstein, Ariana Grande, Derek Hough, Jennifer Hudson, Martin Short, Ephraim Sykes, Shahadi Wright Joseph

It took about an hour for “Hairspray Live!” to find its sweet spot. The energy was a little low, a line got dropped, and the production — the most complex, it appeared, that NBC has attempted in this current spate of live musicals — took a few musical numbers to settle into a rhythm. But once it did (the energy seemed to kick in with “Welcome to the ‘60s”) the musical easily became the best NBC has attempted.

It’s hard to imagine better casting for the production. Jennifer Hudson stole the show, once Motormouth Maybelle got to the screen; Ariana Grande, certifiable pop star, came away as the show’s MVP, acting as both reliably overlook-able sidekick and, once the situation required it, showstopping diva. Harvey Fierstein was predictably great, reprising his role from Broadway as Edna. Martin Short, frequently misused, found the right profile for himself as Wilbur.

Derek Hough, who can often be a distractingly energetic presence, was priceless as Corny Collins (is there a way he could just play that character, forever?). Ephraim Sykes and Shahadi Wright Joseph, both Broadway veterans despite their young ages, broke out onto the mainstream consciousness in a big way. Their number “Run and Tell That” was one of the first big hits of the evening. If there was a weak link, it was newcomer Maddie Baillio, who seemed a little flustered and was perhaps a skosh too restrained, even in the final number. But given that “Hairspray Live!” just needed to be good — and that Tracy just needed to be bright, bubbly, and engaging — Baillio, along with the rest of the cast, carried it off in style.

The emotional highlight of the production was Hudson’s knock-out delivery of “I Know Where I’ve Been.” The anthemic call for social action has taken on added resonance in the nation’s post-election political climate, probably more so than it had when NBC chose “Hairspray” as this year’s holiday tuner back in January.

“Hairspray Live!” was clearly influenced by Fox’s production of the Emmy-winning “Grease: Live” — which had the performers scrambling across a massive lot in between numbers, with a live audience on hand to provide applause and laughter. NBC has now done four of these live musicals, starting in 2013 with “The Sound of Music,” and with each one has improved on the high-wire act of mounting a stage production for TV. With “Hairspray Live!” the cast and crew left the soundstage, racing around the lot in golf carts and filming segments like Tracy’s “Good Morning Baltimore” and “Run and Tell That” outside on the backlot at Universal.

There were some odd moments (“Good Morning Baltimore” was filmed outside, in the… evening?) but displayed admirable risk-taking from productions that can otherwise get stuck in a staid, stagey format. NBC also committed to investing in some kind of live audience for the event — with viewing parties in different cities around the country and a live audience on certain sets, including the crucial final number “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” It was a little unwieldy — perhaps Darren Criss, the host who handled most of the segues into commercial breaks, didn’t need to start chatting excitedly to the audience right as the performers stopped singing; it made for a jarring transition. But it was still fun; the audience was being folded into the bigger experience, and when there wasn’t an audience around to clap, I missed them. Fierstein, Short, and Kristin Chenoweth as Velma would have all been happier, too, with an audience that could laugh at their at times very funny performances.

The emotional highlight of the production was Hudson’s knock-out delivery of “I Know Where I’ve Been.” The anthemic call for social action has taken on added resonance in the nation’s post-election political climate, probably more so than it had when NBC chose “Hairspray” as this year’s holiday tuner back in January.

In addition to just the production elements, one of the reasons this musical worked so well is because of how carefully it was chosen. “Hairspray” is a production that both celebrates and interrogates nostalgia; that made it pair perfectly with NBC, a network that has indulged sometimes too far in nostalgic appeal with its previous musical productions. Whereas “The Sound of Music Live!” “Peter Pan Live!” and even “The Wiz!” felt distinctly dated, “Hairspray Live!” felt like a 2016 update of the 1988 film, with a wink and nod at product placement, a lot of conversation about body positivity, and an unfortunately still-relevant story about racial acceptance and integration. There was a lot of verve and spunk to this production that did not feel like it was coming out of a time machine; it helped that Disney alums Grande, Dove Cameron, and Garrett Clayton are all bona fide stars to the youngest members of the audience.

These live musicals are always unwieldy; at times, too, the commercial tie-ins (Oreos! Reddi-Whip!) and blindingly cheerful smiles to the camera can be overwhelming. The kinetic energy of the production wasn’t quite at the level of “Grease Live”, but the vocal performances and wonderful dance numbers made up for most of that. And most importantly, “Hairspray Live!” in the main was genuinely entertaining, even amid some messy moments of a huge production that seemed to be striving for a lot of different emotions all at once.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Hairspray Live!'

Crew: Executive producers, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron

Cast: Maddie Baillio, Dove Cameron, Kristin Chenoweth, Garrett Clayton, Harvey Fierstein, Ariana Grande, Derek Hough, Jennifer Hudson, Martin Short, Ephraim Sykes, Shahadi Wright Joseph

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