The Highs and Lows of Hairspray Live!

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Hairspray Live! - Season 2016
Ephraim Skyes, Ariana Grande, Maddie Baillio, Kristin Chenoweth, Garrett Clayton, Dove Cameron, Harvey Fierstein, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Paul Vogt, Derek Hough. Photo: Trae Patton/NBC

You can’t stop the beat, but you can surely weigh it down with a bunch of technical issues. Cribbing nearly every move from the Grease: Live playbook, down to the golf carts, NBC’s Hairspray Live! turned out to be a very enthusiastic, very energetic, and not quite cohesive live TV musical. The show didn’t not end up being the political beacon we hoped it could be, and NBC’s attempts to package the musical with an endless array of asides and explainers fell flat. But as a musical, Hairspray is still strong enough to survive the confusion of live TV, even with a few questionable casting and directing choices. (Don’t even get us started on the lighting.) To make sense of that Technicolor chaos, we’re here to recap the event, giving praise where it’s deserved, and noting a few of the times where things felt flat, despite all the aerosol spray.

HIGH: Ephraim Sykes’s Seaweed Stubbs and Dove Cameron’s Amber. Hairspray Live! boasted its fair share of big name stars, but Seaweed and Amber routinely stole our attention thanks to both Sykes and Cameron’s commitment to their characters. Sure, we’re supposed to root for Tracy and Link, but why bother when we’re so much more entertained by the supporting cast?

LOW: The lighting and other occasional tech issues. Staging an elaborate production like Hairspray on live television is an enormous challenge. Overall, director Kenny Leon & Co. did a fine job, but there were definitely times when the seams showed. There were a few moments when Maddie Baillio and other cast members were standing in total darkness, in desperate need of a spotlight. During the opener, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” Baillio’s mic cut out entirely for a few seconds. Minor glitches, but still noticeable ones.

HIGH: The book. Teleplay writer Harvey Fierstein’s pass at the oft-adapted story was a thankless task, not adding much but leaving behind some painfully obtuse moments (Tracy assaulting a cop, for example). With Seaweed’s “enlightenment” of Tracy and her euphoric “Negro Day” exclamations — or the Motormouth Records regulars’ objection to nearly getting arrested for “the white girl” — Hairspray Live! also made a few tweaks that didn’t fully override Hairspray’s inherent white-savior narrative, but at least did a decent job of turning Tracy into a member of a movement, instead of its wrongful leader.

LOW: A lack of meta-awareness about the current cultural climate. As noted in this piece, the creative team behind Hairspray Live! clearly recognized the irony of producing a show about civil rights at a time of heightened racial and ethnic divisiveness in America. But instead of playing up the irony in lines like “Yesterday is history / And it’s never comin’ back!” from “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” the cast played them business-as-usual. It felt a little tone-deaf.

HIGH: Jennifer Hudson’s presence. We knew J.Hud would be one of Hairspray’s stronger assets, but once she started belting out “Big, Blonde and Beautiful,” that hunch was confirmed in the best possible way. She may not have won American Idol, but she is an American treasure, damn it, as well as the MVP of Hairspray Live!

LOW: Link’s guitar skills (or lack thereof). During “It Takes Two,” Link hypothetically played his guitar Elvis style, except that Garrett Clayton refused to actually fake-finger those strings. Instead, he tapped the guitar, let it lie limp, or just had his hand hover in the instrument’s general vicinity, as if counting on an optical illusion to close the gap. Given that Clayton couldn’t shred, why didn’t the production just let the boy dance? Everyone knows that Link’s only good for his hip thrusts, anyway.

HIGH: “I Know Where I’ve Been.” The most serious song in the show and the one that speaks most directly and movingly to the struggle for civil rights in America, this was, as expected, a highlight, thanks to Hudson’s fully impassioned performance.

LOW: “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Okay, it’s not quite right to call this one a low. But we still wish Hairspray Live! had staged this in a manner more akin to how it was presented in the 2007 movie: with Maybelle singing while she leads a civil-rights march. As produced for NBC, it was definitely great, and reflective of the original production. But given the cultural moment, a protest would have given it an even more meaningful backdrop.

HIGH: Whenever Kristin Chenoweth got a chance to sing or reprise “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” Really, any time spent watching Kristin Chenoweth maniacally belting is time well spent, especially if she gets to make some crab hands.

LOW: Darren Criss and the awkward interstitial audience interviews. It felt strange to see someone known for his singing and dancing talents consigned to engaging in awkward banter with fans. In the final hour, when Criss threw to commercial by screaming and chasing a golf cart, he was clearly crying out for help.

HIGH: The Corny Collins Show set. So many bright colors! So much glitter! You almost needed sunglasses to handle the vibrancy in HD.

LOW: Ariana Grande’s line delivery. Grande may have shaked and shimmied with the best of ‘em, but a Broadway and sitcom background did her surprisingly few favors when it came to actual dialogue, which too often had the cadence of someone reading a sentence for the very first time, only to find herself surprised by its end. That comic-timing deficit became even more pronounced alongside vets like Harvey Fierstein and Martin Short, leaving Grande looking scattered, lost, and a little afraid. Better luck next live musical, girl.

HIGH: The guy who showed up in a Reddi-wip commercial. He may have been a creation of big corporations bent on getting us to buy whipped toppings while we watch our favorite TV musicals, but dang, he was dreamy.

Hairspray Live: The Highs and Lows