Photo: Hairspray Live!/NBC

Hairspray has always been a counterculture story. John Waters’ satirical examination of the 1960s debuted towards the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency; the Broadway musical and subsequent movie musical adaptations both premiered during the Bush era; and tonight’s live musical broadcast arrives as America is still grappling with the notion of having Donald Trump as a president. If the story has arguably been watered down a bit in each subsequent retelling, there’s still a noticeable edge in NBC’s production of Hairspray Live! “Are all white people like that?” Little Inez (Shahadi Wright Joseph) asks after a curt exit from a racist mother/daughter duo. “No, no,” Martin Short’s Wilbur Turnblad reassures her. “Just most.”

As a piece of social commentary, tonight’s production of Hairspray Live! was just about flawless. It’s a show that explicitly, joyfully celebrates fat women, old women, and black people of all ages, genders, and sizes. There’s a moment in which two men (albeit one playing a woman) sing a funny, moving love song to one another. And there’s another moment in which that woman proudly sings, “If you don’t like the way I look, well, I just don’t give a damn!” Hairspray is a show that acknowledges that for however far we’ve come, there’s still more work to be done. And as Trump was busy attacking private citizens on Twitter, Hairspray Live! was celebrating the idea that we’re stronger together than we are apart. That’s just the kind of jubilant, cathartic message a lot of people need to hear right now.

As a piece of live theater, however, Hairspray Live! was decidedly more mixed. The show was perfectly charming throughout, with a handful of genuinely fantastic moments. Yet there was something about it that didn’t quite gel as well as I wanted it to. Though tonight’s broadcast was technically superior to last year’s production of The Wiz Live!, that show had a certain spark that tonight’s production was missing slightly. Or perhaps it’s just that as these live musicals become more commonplace, I’m starting to cut them less slack for the inherent awkwardness of pioneering a new format.

Having stuck to a more static style for its past three live musicals (although Peter Pan Live! was more creatively staged than people remember), Hairspray Live! unabashedly lifts Grease: Live’s 360-degree staging wholesale. Tonight’s production unfolded on several massive soundstages and a full outdoor Baltimore city block, which remained curiously dark even during a song that celebrates the fact that it’s morning. But unfortunately, NBC couldn’t quite pull off its massive production with the same precision as Fox.

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In addition to the sound and lighting problems that plagued the show throughout the night, the first 15-20 minutes of Hairspray Live! (everything before the first commercial break) were pretty rough. The chaotic staging and quick-cutting cameras created a frantic energy that overwhelmed the show’s buoyant opening. Thankfully, things picked up considerably as the night went on and the show began to embrace simpler theatrical staging. These live musicals have all struggled with how much they should feel like a filmed play vs. a movie musical. And numbers like “I Can Hear The Bells” and “(The Legend Of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” found a nice balance that got the show back on the right foot after a shaky (literally) opening. “Welcome To The 60’s” was another strong early number that showed off the massive sets without letting them overwhelm the performers.

As always seems to be the case with these live musicals, the cast ranged widely in terms of talent, although no one was ruinously bad. But the younger players in particular struggled to lock into the right kind of heightened performance style that let’s the show’s satirical edge peek out from behind their earnestness. The two exceptions were Dove Cameron (as mean girl Amber Von Tussle) and Ephraim Sykes (as street-smart flirt Seaweed J. Stubbs), who were both consistently fun to watch. Elsewhere, newcomer Maddie Baillio lent a gorgeous voice but a bit too much of an ingénue edge to her Tracy Turnblad, a character who should be a little quirkier given that she spends most of her time either in detention or rabble-rousing. As nerdy Penny Pingleton, Ariana Grande mostly let her inherent cuteness stand in for comedy, which wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. And Garrett Clayton’s Link Larkin was, well, the weak link of the night, offering an earnest Jonas Brothers-esque take on a character that’s supposed to be a parody of those kinds of teen idols.

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Thankfully, the adult cast more than pulled their varying weights throughout the night. Kristin Chenoweth (as Amber’s racist mother Velma) and especially Jennifer Hudson (as soulful record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle) were the biggest scene-stealers. But original Broadway cast member Harvey Fierstein (as Tracy’s shy mother Edna), Martin Short (as Tracy’s goofy father), and Andrea Martin (in a smaller role as Penny’s domineering mother) were all wonderful as well. Though less flashy than the big ensemble numbers, Firestein and Short’s sweet “Timeless To Me” duet was another highlight of the evening.

But considering the impressive comedy chops of its adult cast, it’s disappointing that for all the lessons Hairspray Live! learned from Grease: Live, it didn’t pick up the most important one: Musicals need a live audience. And not just for the musical numbers—where, to be fair, Hairspray Live! often had spectators—but more importantly for the book scenes. Fierstein fired off hilarious one-liner after hilarious one-liner tonight, but, as on multi-camera sitcoms, those kind of broad jokes just don’t land as well without an immediate audience reaction. It’s hilarious when Corny Collins dancer Brenda cheerfully announces she’ll be taking a “nine month” break from the show, but that line doesn’t even feel like a joke without laughter to lift it up. Adding a live audience (or at least a laugh track) is an easy fix that would make a massive difference, and it’s truly bizarre that none of these productions have figured that out yet.

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But what helps Hairspray Live! tremendously is that of the five live musicals that have aired so far (six counting Fox’s pre-taped Rocky Horror remake), Hairspray has by far the most solid source material. Though I’ll entertain arguments that The Sound Of Music or The Wiz have better scores, Hairspray’s story unfolds at a refreshingly modern clip, cutting the draggy excesses of NBC’s more old-fashioned musical choices. And the show manages to insert a lot of nuance beneath its toe-tapping, candy colored surface.

In addition to Tracy’s attempts to bring some much needed body-type diversity to the squeaky clean Corny Collins Show (hosted by Derek Hough’s Corny Collins, who has a surprisingly solid set of pipes but the terrible misfortune of being compared to James Marsden’s flawless take on the role), Hairspray’s big theme is the importance of acknowledging and battling racism. And the night’s two best performances, Sykes’ “Run And Tell That!” and Hudson’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” celebrate the pain and pride of the black experience. Director Kenny Leon—who also helmed The Wiz Live!—clearly had a blast staging the celebratory block party feel of “Run And Tell,” while Hudson’s powerhouse vocals even compensate for the odd camera work in her big eleven o’clock number. And most importantly, the struggles of the Stubbs family and their friends feels as vital now as they do in the show’s 1960s setting.

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Once the snubs, flubs, and mic issues have faded from memory, I suspect that what people will remember about Hairspray Live! is its message. Tonight NBC aired a family friendly holiday special that celebrated the importance of protest, jabbed at the racism of white women, and gave a plus-sized teen a happily ever after without demanding that she change herself to earn it. In throwing back to the 1960s, Hairspray Live! offered a glimpse of a better future. As Seaweed sings during the show’s exuberant finale: “You can try and stop the hands of time / But you know it just can’t be.” And that’s a message that‘s as powerful now as it’s ever been.

Stray observations

  • For some reason, Hairspray Live! decided it needed a “host” to comment on the show during commercial breaks a la Mario Lopez in Grease: Live. Nothing against Darren Criss, who I generally like quite a bit, but the whole thing really ruined the evening’s flow. Grease is fluffy enough to take some meta interruptions, but Hairspray isn’t.
  • I am, however, glad that NBC stole Fox’s idea of having a real curtain call. Here Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande perform “Got So Far To Go,” a song written for the 2007 musical movie. (“Ladies Choice” is also an addition from the film. And I believe “The Big Dollhouse” is the only original song not performed tonight.)
  • The three women playing The Dynamites (Kamilah Marshall, Judine Somerville, and Shayna Steele) originated the roles on Broadway. Plus former Tracys Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur both got cameos in “Welcome To The ‘60s.” Better luck next time Nikki Blonsky.
  • I actually found Grande inexplicably charming throughout, despite her uneven performance. But her delivery of the iconic Gypsy line, “I’m a pretty girl, mama” is what completely won me over.
  • I think Tracy’s line about wanting to be the first female president was in the original show, but, man, did it land differently tonight. There was also a surprising amount of bite in Little Inez’s repeated assertion that the person in the most danger over the Penny/Seaweed relationship is Seaweed.
  • Ephraim Sykes doing a jump split over Ariana Grande is maybe the most impressive thing I’ve seen on TV this year.
  • Favorite celebrity cameo: It’s a tossup between Sean Hayes as plus-sized clothing storeowner Mr. Pinky, and Rose O’Donnell as the high school gym teacher (a piece of casting that feels like an explicit ‘fuck you’ to Trump).
  • Favorite technical flub: It’s a tossup between a crewmember saying “30 seconds” in the middle of “Timeless To Me,” and the director cutting to entirely the wrong camera during “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
  • See you this time next year for Jennifer Lopez in Bye Bye Birdie: Live!

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