The direction in the opening scene seems a little sloppy. The Flasher (who lives next door) and the Bum (on his barroom stool) got just over the right amount of time, a matter of seconds, yes, but it adds up and shows a loose hand. Why didn’t they have Tommy Kail direct this? I still don’t know how he managed to do ‘Grease: Live!’ (always with the exclamation point!) flawlessly, but he did, and now we have higher standards for these live productions that this just isn’t meeting.
It stinks that have to do the ‘morning’ routine in the dark – is it dark in L.A. at 5pm now? – but I can pretend that mornings in Baltimore are like mornings in London where it’s dark until 8am. Also high school in the U.S. starts offensively early. Good thing that will end soon because public school will be no more!
Tracy rushes out of school with her best friend Penny Pingleton, played by Ariana Grande. I have really high expectations for her, this big time recording artist/professional baby who I first saw before she was famous in the musical ‘13’ on Broadway. It would be pretty amazing for theatre if she got back into it, if she can hack it. Tracy and Penny rush to Tracy’s house to watch the Corny Collins Show, the local live dance show that cities used to have in the good old days, like American Bandstand in Philly and Buddy Deane in Baltimore. As they rush home, we meet Tracy and Penny’s moms - and I have to say, I did not do my research because I was SHOCKED to see Andrea Martin, one of the bests ever, as Mrs. Pingleton! Alison Janney was beyond superb in the movie – and if I recall correctly, I saw another best Jackie Hoffman in the role on Broadway! – but Andrea is a wonderful choice. Considering how excited I got over her, it’s a really good thing for my heart that I knew Harvey Fierstein was reprising his role as Edna Turnblad, otherwise when he dropped that sheet and was revealed I probably would have passed out! This is HUGE, people! Harvey originated the role in the musical version, after Divine in the original John Waters movie. (It’s because of Divine that Edna is always played by a man but that has nothing to do with the story.) Harvey is the greatest! This is such a treat for the world to see, his performance saved for all posterity.
We watch the Corny Collins Show with the girls as Mrs. Pingleton admonishes them for watching such ‘colored’ garbage (p.s. Hairspray is about racism!) to which Edna replies (in that epically deep torn up voice) “The TV is black and white”. Derek Hough, as Corny, has really big shoes to fill in my heart because James Marsden, in the 2007 movie, was perfection on top of amazingess as Corny. But the new ‘Every Live TV Musical Must Include a Hough Sibling’ rule paid off because they are really talented. We meet the “Nicest Kids in Town”, and I must say, Amber, played by Dove Cameron, is the whitest, blondest Aryan I’ve ever seen so so far she is very well cast as Amber. Link, I’m not so sure about yet, but let’s see how he does when it’s not in a group number. (They could have just gotten Zac Efron again; he was perfect, and he still looks like a child.)
But no casting can compare to the most incredible, perfect, why-has-this-never-happened-before casting of Kristin Chenoweth as the head of the TV station and Amber’s mother, Velma Von Tussle. When the girl dancer announces her ‘9-month leave of absence’, leaving the opening for the new cast member that Tracy auditions for, Kristin fell to her knees in front of the camera. Amazing!
I’m obsessed with all interaction between Edna and Wilbur, her husband and Tracy’s father, played by Martin Short. I love how Wilbur is always played by skinny nebbishy men. Christopher Walken was so good in the movie (so random, but he was great. And nebbishy) but Martin Short is ideal. So cute. And now every time I see him, I hear John Mulaney in “Oh, Hello” saying “But why are you so…Jewish?”
Unexpectedly, the scene turns into a 3-way split screen between Amber and Velma, Tracy and Edna, and Penny and Prudy, all three girls arguing with their mothers, and they all sing “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now”. Unexpected, because this was the end credits song in the movie, which I know better than any other version, and I don’t remember it from the stage version. According to internet, it was in it, and in the same slot, but it doesn’t make sense to me, for Penny, at least. And for Amber! Amber and Velma are always in cahoots about all their devilish doings, so it seems odd for them to be arguing about anything. But I guess Amber’s only position is that she likes boys. But it makes less sense to me for Penny’s arc, because at least in my memory she is always shy and afraid to stand up to her mother/anyone until she meets Seaweed and gains confidence from him. Her turnaround towards the end is her big character development, so it’s weird to have her fight back a little at the beginning. Regardless, so far the MVP of all the yoots is Dove Cameron as Amber. I have no idea who she is, and Amber always seemed a thankless role to me, but she is hilarious! When Corny said the contest would be on x date, Amber squealed – on live TV – ‘my birthday!!!’ I was not expecting her to be funny at all. A funny Amber is going to be fun! She also has a lovely, clear voice, whereas I’m not sold yet on Maddie. And Ariana Grande seems to be preoccupied with making her trademark affected riffs instead of actually hitting notes and projecting, which is disappointing.
Next up is “I Can Hear the Bells”, which occurs at the TV station before Tracy’s audition, when she bumps into Link Larkin, who is kind of dull. Oh god remember when Matthew Morrison played Link?! THOSE. WERE. THE. DAYS. Maddie sounds very pretty here but it’s kind of just fine. I know Nikki Blonsky was g-d perfection as Tracy in the 2007 movie. And I know there’s a lot of leeway to be given when comparing live singing to recorded, able-to-be-polished singing, but I’m also comparing it to other live singing (like Marissa Jaret Winokur on stage).
No time for me to reminisce about how good the movie was, because it’s time for Cheno to shine…or try to, because “Miss Baltimore Crabs” is literally the worst song ever. It’s just terrible. But Cheno is so good and SO funny that this was by far the best it’s ever been performed. It is such a cruel scene, with Velma and all the girls making fun of Tracy for wanting to audition, and for being fat, but it’s effective to show how terrible the Von Tussles are and to show how Tracy’s views on race contradict those of the white people around her, priming her to become an ally in the struggle for integration later on in the show. I never noticed Velma’s ‘separate but equal’ line in the Crabs song, which was spot on for showing how she/20% of America thinks. Regardless of how bad the song is, Cheno was so good and all hatred for the number was washed away when she ended by making crab claws on top of her head. So ridiculous, so great! I love how much fun she seems to be having and how much fun she can make of herself with glee. Cheno needs to be in every live musical.
After the commercial break we open on Tracy using a lot of hairspray in the school hallway, and the gym teacher yells at her and it’s Rosie O’Donnell! I love Rosie so much! She is proof that just loving musicals so much can get you into them! I am glad that she is finding some happiness now that her arch nemesis is going to be president.
Rosie sends Tracy to detention – where she meets Seaweed and all the black kids. Yasss this is where the show really starts, because Seaweed is always the best. The movie introduced us to the insanely talented Elijah Kelly as Seaweed. Here, I already know how good this Seaweed is, because it’s Ephraim Sykes!! I’ve seen him kick ass on Broadway in Memphis, Newsies, and last year as the most villainous George Eacker in Hamilton. (He’s on your cast album saying “Piss off I’m watching this show now.”) He does not disappoint in his first scene, where he teaches Tracy some boundary-pushing dance moves, the ones that she will do at the school dance in the next scene, where they’ll get her on the Corny Collins show. At the dance, Corny sings “Ladies Choice”, a great song that was written for the 2007 movie – for Link to perform, where he first takes serious notice of Tracy. Why they have Derek Hough singing it when he’s not really a singer, and it was written as a Link song, I do not understand. Until the next scene, when Link sings “It Takes Two” and, well, he’s not much of a singer either. Or he’s just not having a good day. Disappointment. There are how many talented young guys around who could have played these roles?
Luckily, we get “Velma’s Revenge” next, a tiny reprise from the tiny Cheno that is so much better than “Miss Baltimore Crabs”. She is out of this world, and so obviously in a class of her own so far. This reprise is not in the movie, so I forgot that there’s a line about how she can’t be a bigot because she likes Sammy Davis Jr, and he’s black and a Jew! Amazing.
The behind the scenes pre-commercial break stuff from Darren Criss is just bad. It pulls the audience out of the magical world that the show is supposed to create, much more so than the actual commercials do. Isn’t he supposed to be performing as Hedwig somewhere? I really don’t like how a musical number will end and then go right to him saying “Wow that was good!” No that’s my job, Darren. The cuts to the NBC affiliates in various cities were cringeworthy. How do these people get jobs in front of a camera?! No! Too awkward. Seriously between this and the people they put on TV in the UK I’m just like WHO is making decisions in this world? The cut to Philadelphia’s live show at the Kimmel Center was the only one that was worth having. The host Keith Jones was not screaming like a banshee like the Houston and Atlanta ones but instead seemed professional. And the guests he showed weren’t crazy old bats who were talking about their wigs but like freaking Bobby Rydell and the original Seaweed from the 1988 movie. Philly showed up the others so hard it’s almost not fair.
Next up is one of my favorite numbers, usually. “Welcome to the ‘60s” gets Edna out of the house for the first time in years and made over by Mr Pinkie, owner of the plus size clothing store, who wants Tracy as his new spokesgirl. Sean Hayes as Mr Pinkie is a fabulous surprise, anything to get him involved! But the direction is a little too stilted and stationary for me. It was good but I wanted just a little more. And the lingering shot showing Marissa Jaret Winokur and Ricki Lake – two of the three main former Tracys – was another sloppy directing choice, since they were shown plenty after that moment. It felt unnecessary. No need to linger, especially if you’re not going to let Marissa sing and show everyone how it’s done.
Speaking of unnecessary, this dodgeball scene is ridiculously dumb, but at least it leads into my favorite thing ever – “Run & Tell That”, Seaweed’s time to shine. Ephraim seems about half a beat slower than the music, which I imagine must be a sound problem with what they’re piping into his earpiece. His dancing is amazing, but it’s so upsetting that something is stopping him from being perfect. I think they are having a lot of sound tech issues considering how many mics seemed to drop off so far in the show. Ephraim has such presence though so it’s pretty great. And Ariana’s Penny finally seems to come alive when she’s flirting with him. This extended dance break in “Run & Tell That” should be exciting but having it slowed down and in the dark was a bad choice. Little Inez, though not so little (so tall!), is beyond fabulous, as it should be. Shahadi Wright Joseph sounds amazing. Ephraim’s jump off the table into a split was epic and totally saved the world.
Seeing Ricki Lake and Marissa backstage for the little commercial break just made me sad. Like, Marissa is RIGHT THERE, just sitting around. Put her in for the rest of the show! Maddie is obviously very talented but she needs a Red Bull or something to give her more zazz. She’s lacking a star quality or at least a bouncy energy that Tracy really needs! Marissa has that bouncy Tracy energy just in her big smile as she’s sitting down.
FINALLY, J-Hud is here to BRING DOWN THE HOUSE. Queen Latifah’s Oscar-worthy performance from the movie was seriously perfection, as she usually is, but despite J-Hud being only 4 years older than her supposed son Ephraim, she was great as Motormouth Maybelle. Her stint on Broadway really helped her acting since that time she was in the Sex & the City movie. The book scene up to Jennifer Hudson’s big song ‘Big Blonde and Beautiful’ was the funniest part of the whole show, with Harvey’s Edna and Cheno’s Velma facing off at Maybelle’s record store and platter party. Velma is horrified at being near so many ‘minorities’ and then even more horrified to spy what spawned Tracy. Edna of course will not have that kind of talk about her daughter, and probably has the best line ever when she turns to face off against Velma and says to Tracy in that super gravelly voice, “Hold mommy’s waffles.” It’s too bad Vine is gone because I would need a Vine of that. The banter is fabulous, and when Martin Short’s Wilbur joins the party, we get my favorite line of the show from one of Seaweed’s friends: “If we get any more white people in here, it’ll be a suburb.” It faces stiff competition from everything that happens after Amber and Velma leave. First, Edna deadpans, “I didn’t care for them” hilariously. And then Inez asks, “Are all white people like that?” “No no,” Wilbur assures her. “Just most.” Martin Short ftw!
Okay. Seriously? Link and Tracy’s big emotional moment, when Link decides he can’t be a part of the fight against segregation because of his career, was completely ruined and not only by Garrett Clayton’s boring acting. Whose stupid idea was it to have him say “I’m not throwing away my shot”? PEOPLE. Yes we all know Hamilton is the greatest thing ever. FFS I’m the person who told most of you that it was being WRITTEN and you didn’t believe me. But it does not make you great to reference it in your own art. First “Gilmore Girls” and now this. Well and every single other TV show and movie and commercial nowadays. Can people start being original again and stop trying to cheaply grab some of Hamilton’s greatness? It will not rub some of its genius off on you if you quote it inappropriately. I would say /end rant but I will never stop complaining about this until people stop doing it. So stupid.
I love Jennifer Hudson and she does a great job with this song, but her character is supposed to be a big lady, not someone who used to be big! I’m glad they added the opening line “Once upon a time girl I was just like you” to give a reason for her to sing the song. Even though she isn't fat anymore, J-Hud is amaz. “Pour some sugar on me, sugar don’t be shyyy” I love the lyrics in this song so much! God she puts these production values to shame. They cannot handle her belt. I don’t love how they turn “Big Blonde & Beautiful” into the protest against the studio instead of having Tracy march with the black community while Maybelle sings “I Know Where I’ve Been”, which is my favorite part of the movie. If that song isn’t in this show I’m going to riot in the streets with them. Can you imagine Jennifer Hudson singing it?! Don’t take this away from me!
No time to think of that because it’s time for the most adorable part of Hairspray, “You’re Timeless to Me”, Wilbur’s ode to his love for his wife. Martin Short and Harvey Fierstein are great in this scene. It’s so damn funny and awkward and amazing. I love how high Martin’s voice is and how otherworldly low Harvey can get. It makes no sense that they are out on the street and not in their house but I guess Kenny Leon found it easier to direct every single number out on a wet street instead of making interesting choices.
Link comes to break Tracy out of jail while Seaweed breaks Penny out of her house and they all sing “Without Love”. Maddie sounded good here, if still frustratingly lacking in bubbliness and energy. Ariana finally did something right by bouncing on the bed when she sang “Now I’ve tasted chocolate and I’m never going back”; that was absolutely hilarious! But she still seems to be singing to the ceiling trying to riff everything instead of focusing on the moment of the song, not to mention the fact that she seems to have a medical condition that prevents her from using consonants. Her acting is pretty funny, though, at times, and her scenes with Ephraim are fun.
When we return from commercial, Billy Eichner is giving a TV news report because nothing counts unless you can fit Billy in somehow. Tracy and the Motormouth crew talk about what to do next and whether this fight is worth fighting, and it should be a really powerful scene but it’s paced sooo slowlyyyy. Luckily, it leads into J-Hud singing “I Know Where I’ve Been”! HOORAY! It’s in! It’s much more powerful in the movie when Motormouth sings it while they march on the station, but J-Hud is blowing this set apart with that voice. I really cannot believe this person is real and from this same world. She totally saved the show. And from this point on, it picks up and is a lot better. Next, at the Miss Hairspray Contest, Derek Hough sounds a great deal better on “(It’s) Hairspray”, and Dove Cameron sounds incredible on a really terrible song, “Cooties”. She is a find, whoever she is.
And then it kind of just ends. All in all, it feels pleasant but unsatisfying. It was nice enough, but aside from a few great performances, the production as a whole felt somewhat lifeless. The pacing was very off; everything felt a touch too slow. The sound problems were rampant, with mics cutting in and out and volume going up and down. It was obviously not as great as ‘Grease: Live’, which was flawless and set the bar extremely high for all live musicals that follow it, but I also don’t think it was as good as ‘The Wiz Live’! It shows that these live musicals are about much, much more than the material chosen, because ‘Hairspray’ is a far superior show than ‘Grease’, yet this production of great source material was just okay. It didn’t help that they ended by having J-Hud and Ariana sing “So Far To Go” during the bows. Why not having J-Hud do it with someone who is trying to make the lyrics heard? I wish they used Marissa here. I loved that Rosie was crying during the curtain call. She just loves being a part of it and that made me happy. I’m glad they all seem to be enjoying themselves, even if it wasn’t great. I'm still glad I watched and I hope they’re all proud of themselves. Except Ariana who needs to take Moses Supposes lessons. At least it was better than ‘Peter Pan Live’.