Paul Drinkwater / NBC

Hairspray Live! Proves Timeless For NBC

The big, bold, and beautiful musical is the network's best live venture to date, complete with big hair, topical relevancy, and lots and lots of glitter.

One of the most beautiful things about theatre culture is its acceptance of the marginalized weirdos of the world. All are welcome to play make-believe in a world of shared imagination, where emotional angst and comic relief are equally praised as a means of expressive communication. And sure, that might be a bit heavy of an introduction to a review of Hairspray Live! -- itself a live broadcast of a musical based on a John Waters movie -- but it also reflects the social issues the show tackles head-on through a refreshing sense of self-awareness. Of course the present-day relevance of said issues is more problematic than nostalgic (after all, the show is set in 1960s Baltimore), but the overall optimism is just as contagious as ever, even with the commercial breaks.

The Setting

While NBC's previous live musicals have been staged in New York, Hairspray Live! breaks with tradition by taking over a proper studio lot in L.A. This means that the rats are fake, but also more physical space for the production to play with. Longer, more sweeping camera shots are incorporated, as is a live audience and a host, in the handsome form of Darren Criss (who really should have been cast as either Corny or Link, but I digress). Some weird fourth-wall-breaking elements are also added to ease the transition from scene to commercial; they neither add nor detract from the overall experience, mainly because they're used strategically according to the mood of the preceding scene.

The Ladies

In terms of dream roles, it doesn't get more iconic for the pleasantly plump outcast (me) than Tracy Turnblad. She's a classic, as much for her hair as for her general goodness. Newcomer Maddie Baillio joins Ricki Lake, Marissa Jaret Winokur, and Nikki Blonsky in remaking the role as her own, and she's fun to watch even if the audio quality doesn't make her a vocal standout. She positively glows throughout the opening "Good Morning Baltimore" and there's a continued, adorable gleam in her eyes throughout the entire show. Dove Cameron as Amber and Ariana Grande as Penny are fine, Harvey Fierstein as Edna is Harvey Fierstein, but Kristin Chenoweth as Velma Van Tussle is surprisingly retrained, which feels like an odd choice coming from someone known for being over the top.

The Link

Let's just say that the highlight of Garrett Clayton's performance is the part when he's standing still in "I Can Hear The Bells." Seriously, the guy is an A+ planter. The problem is he's just not much else, falling continually flat throughout the rest of the show.

The '60s

Hard to top any musical number that features a wiener cart, Ricki Lake, Sean Hayes, and faux Pucci, really.

The Body-Image Issues

For as much as Tracy and Edna take on and overcome issues relating to their size (Mr. Pinky's makeover helps), it's Motormouth Maybelle who really gets to hit the issue on the head in the musical version (Edna is much less shy in the original movie). It's a bit weird here, coming from a former Weight Watchers spokesperson who no longer fits the "fat lady sings" bill, but that hiccup dissipates once the marching starts and the number takes on a whole different significance.

The Relationship Goals

Edna + Wilbur 4ever.

The March

Jennifer Hudson is a weird sort of musical diva, in that she blows the roof off of whatever she sings, but she can't deliver a monologue to save a would-be Emmy. Still, "I Know Where I've Been" is beautifully, intimately staged and the delivery is no less impactful for its lack of spoken build-up.

Honorable Mentions

Just a few quick notes to wrap this mother up:

  • The live Oreo commercial with Corny Collins is fun, smart product placement.
  • Ephraim Sykes (Seaweed) is the triple-threat breakout. Sure, he gets winded, but he also delivers the only performance that feels truly live.
  • Billy Eichner as the WZZT news anchor is unnecessary.
  • Ariana Grande's enunciation is slowly improving!
  • Inez Stubbs is the greatest and Shahidi Wright Joseph is adorable.
  • The costumes are all incredible, but the standout pieces are Wilbur's floral beaded jacket in the finale and Corny's gold, YSL-ish jacket.

So where does that leave things, overall? Somewhere between John Waters and a glitter bomb, which is to say that Hairspray Live! didn't embarrass Harvey Fierstein. And really, what more can you ask of a live musical on network television, aside from a bite of Edna's chicken and waffles? Not much.