“Hairspray Live” was so loaded with triple threats Wednesday night it should have been fined for violating television’s talent limit.
Just as ambitious as last season’s “Grease Live,” the musical had an extra edge because of its snarky take on the 1960s.
Set in Baltimore, the Tony-winning musical addressed integration with snappy one-liners, infectious songs and enough double entendres to fuel a Rusty Warren retrospective.
Maddie Baillio made an impressive debut as Tracy Turnblad, the plus-sized high school girl who dreams of dancing on “The Corny Collins Show.” She gets her wish, then squares off with mean girl Amber Von Tussle (Dove Cameron) and her equally calculating mom (Kristin Chenoweth) in the Miss Teenage Hairspray competition. Tossed in the mix: Link Larkin (Garrett Clayton), the heartthrob who wants to use the dance show as his springboard to a music career. Both girls have their eyes on him and won’t give up without a fight.
Directed by Kenny Leon, the driving musical sprawled across a series of sets at Hollywood’s Universal Studios. While many of the scene changes were flawless, several moments were cloaked in darkness, either because the lighting design wasn’t good or someone didn’t quite hit a mark.
While this “Hairspray” may best be remembered for righting a wrong (Broadway star Harvey Fierstein finally got to play the role he created – Tracy’s mom), it let just about everyone have a stellar turn in the spotlight. Chenoweth, so deliciously low as the Mama Rose of Baltimore, sang, danced and twirled a baton before attempting the splits and spraying a toxic level of ozone-killing hairspray. Cameron matched her beat-for-beat and Derek Hough was more than you’d expect as the singing, dancing host. He also did a live commercial (there were several) and hit more marks than an Olympic archer.
Martin Short was just so-so as Fierstein’s husband (he lapsed into Ed Grimley form several times) and Jennifer Hudson seemed off her game when she wasn’t singing (she was the soulful Motormouth Maybelle), but Shahadi Wright Joseph and Ephraim Sykes were perfect as her children.
Billy Eichner, Sean Hayes, Andrea Martin, Rosie O’Donnell and two former Tracys, Ricki Lake and Marisa Jaret Winokur, made cameos but “Hairspray Live” belonged to Baillio and Fierstein.
Put into play with an old pro like Chenoweth, they couldn’t lose.
Like “Grease Live,” this production pulled back the cameras and showed some of the action between scenes. It wasn’t really necessary (nor were the visits to parties across the country) but it added to the excitement and the randomness of the show.
Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed the Broadway edition, handled those duties here and didn’t let up on anyone. Even Fierstein, clad in a fat suit, wigs and high heels, moved with purpose.
The songs – if you listened closely to the lyrics – were smart and filled with ‘60s references. Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day got shout-outs. America, meanwhile, got a great lesson in Civil Rights.
When the nicest kids in town put on one of the best shows in years, you know you just couldn’t stop the beat.