Maddie Baillio plays Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray Live!," which aired on Dec. 7. (Justin Lubin for NBC)

‘Hairspray Live!’ brings strong singing, strong message

Gone are the days of hate-watching live television adaptations of musicals. They have come a long way since 2013, when country singer Carrie Underwood appalled audiences with her astoundingly poor acting capabilities in the first live televised musical special in almost 50 years on NBC, “The Sound of Music Live!” (2013). 

“The Wiz Live!” (2015) and “Grease: Live” (2016) showed that these musicals did have the potential for actual quality. NBC’s “Hairspray Live!” is the network’s latest musical and latest attempt to remedy its nose-diving ratings. Definitely not as good as “Grease: Live,” but probably more important because of its (unfortunate) relevance, “Hairspray Live!” was still a fun, star-studded event with only a few low points.

The night started off with a slightly rocky start, as newcomer Maddie Baillio, playing Tracy, suffered from a few audio glitches. Despite this, Baillio showed early on why she was chosen out of over 1,000 people at an open casting call for the role of Tracy. Her enthusiasm shined and her singing was excellent, though it was hard for her to compete with the monster voices of some of her female co-stars.

Broadway superstar Kristin Chenoweth was delightfully vicious as Velma, and her rendition of “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” was an early highlight. But the real standout of the night was Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle. She absolutely brought the house down near the end of the night with “I Know Where I’ve Been.” She left nothing on the table, bringing so much power and emotion (and several key changes!) to this anthem for racial equality.

Chenoweth and Hudson weren’t the only famous faces on NBC last Wednesday night. Other stars included pop sensation and doughnut-licker Ariana Grande (Penny), Derek Hough (Corny Collins), Martin Short (Wilbur) and Harvey Fierstein, reprising his Tony-award winning role as Edna. There were also guest appearances from Billy Eichner, Sean Hayes, Rosie O’Donnell and two former “Tracys,” Marissa Jaret Winokur and Ricki Lake.

Also in the cast was current Disney Channel star Dove Cameron, who played Amber. Her speaking voice was overly shrill and got to be a bit grating, but her singing voice was a whole different story. Who would’ve thought such a powerful voice could come out of that tiny girl?

Unfortunately, the other Disney kid in the production was by far the weakest “Link” (Sorry, too easy). Garrett Clayton, best known for “Teen Beach Movie” (2013), just could not find his footing as Link. First of all, he had an entire bottle of the wrong color of foundation on his face. Not his fault, but it was extremely distracting and borderline disturbing. His acting, dancing and singing were all sub-par, and therefore did not make up for his John Boehner-esque skin tone. He and Baillio unfortunately had little-to-no chemistry, and his performance contradicted the claim that Link was supposedly a singing and dancing heartthrob. Bring back Zac Efron please.

Also, it needs to be mentioned that Darren Criss appeared to have gotten lost and somehow ended up as the “host” of the evening. During commercial breaks, Criss would occasionally come out and fangirl over the performers and try to get viewers to tweet about the show using the hashtag #HairsprayLive. The whole thing was pretty #stupid, and it would’ve been better to scrap this whole idea to potentially cut down on the three-hour runtime.

That’s not to say the three hours were a waste of time. “Hairspray Live!” took some ideas out of “Grease: Live’s” playbook and used a similar form of staging, with several sound stages of different settings. This kept for a pretty fast-paced show as performers could bounce around the different sound stages. Also, “Hairspray” is filled with upbeat music and colorful costumes, both of which added to the fun, lively atmosphere.

The end was heartwarming, as the end of “Hairspray” always is, with the whole cast – villains Velma and Amber included – coming together for “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Even Tracy and Link’s painfully hard-to-watch kiss couldn’t ruin this finale. If the conflict of this musical was a little too reminiscent of some of the darkness many feel in our political climate today, this ending number served as a symbol of hope. You can’t stop progress.

You can’t stop the beat.


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