NBC’s fourth annual live musical (after the equally exclamatory The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live! and The Wiz Live!), Hairspray Live! continues a niche of television that grabs viewers more and more accustomed to streaming. With the holidays upon us, families are gathering together and friends crowd around one TV, letting the urgency of live music and a lively political message wash over smaller communities before breaking onto the community at large with livetweets and pieces like this.
You can’t get around Hairspray’s continued relevance in closing out a 2016 plagued by white supremacists adopting euphemisms and empowered, racist white people doing what they like to black bodies. Song and dance, here with an integration subplot and an interracial love story, are avenues of self-expression that many segments of the world (including America’s president elect) would rather repress with their own, institutionally amplified voices than listen to, learn from, and watch.
The story of 1960s Baltimore tearing itself apart over integration while a girl becomes an overnight star thanks to The Corny Collins Show slaps its viewers with its hypothetical reality of white winners yielding a platform to people of color. The production has always been heightened, but it’s never felt quite so fantastical.
Directed by Kenny Leon (The Wiz Live!), one of Broadway’s leading black directors, and Alex Rudzinski, an experienced dance/performance television director, Hairspray Live! was in motion from the get-go. A crane camera descending from a rooftop took us from California to Baltimore in the space of a brick building’s two stories, for instance, zapping us back in time with a glimpse of a black-and-white Kennedy broadcast; after a shaky tracking shot meant to show off the live back lot’s Baltimore street, we were introduced to the new Tracy Turnblad (Maddie Baillio, slightly frazzled to start, then improving over the course of the night).
But it was upon meeting Corny Collins (Derek Hough, shining and brilliant)—whose American Bandstand-style TV program Tracy and her best friend, Penny (Ariana Grande), watch obsessively—that Hairspray Live! hit its stride. The production design was the right amount of kitschy without descending into cheapness, while the choreography allowed practice to take over (and perhaps eased some of Baillio’s early nerves). The first sequence on the set of The Corny Collins Show also introduced us to the racist Von Tussles (the powerful Dove Cameron as Amber and the authoritatively hammy Kristin Chenoweth as her mother, Velma), whose oppressive blonde wigs immediately call to mind Time’s family of the year.
Oppression is a key component of the musical, starting small with conservative mothers. Head-on shots showcased the care put into set design: Even when breaking free from her mother’s (and America’s) suffocating views on sexuality, the racial element still lingers quite literally in the background of Tracy’s blues-plastered walls.
The songs, too, reinforced the production’s ongoing relevance, especially with the introduction of the show’s breakout star, Ephraim Sykes. As Seaweed, Sykes was pure sex, winding and grinding instructively, spicing his rollicking charisma with a relatable, frustrated sense of comic timing. These asides— “Are all white people like that?” “No, no. Just most”; a suffragette grandmother; a college minor in ethnic studies— darted around on the edges of the songs, fleshing out the show’s precise sense of tone.
When a roped-off, segregated dance floor of black background performers brought the funk to Tracy’s choreography, Hairspray Live! handled the racism of the era quite elegantly, with playful humor at Tracy’s ignorant yet well-meaning expense. It’s a moment of teaching, of listening, and more importantly of understanding and adopting a different perspective. The progressivism of the show made each statement—how Tracy wants to “make every day Negro Day,” for example—a gut punch in our new political reality.
Black women empowered the production’s feminism, tired of covering up their pride (despite being let down, on occasion, by the odd camera angles)—especially Jennifer Hudson’s volcanic Motormouth Maybelle. Hudson belts with such power and beauty that the resonations could crumble mountains. Cast members wept as her politically charged record shop became a place of love and protest. Warmly lit, close-knit, and whip-smart, it’s a bastion against the reductionist white bullies that briefly invade it. The Von Tussles choose to ignore things they don’t like, coming off as familiar and familiarly despicable.
The other standout was Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad. He was hilarious, throwing out the broadest humor in the production with perfect flair. His number with Martin Short helped reset the mood with some light, loving energy, to keep the musical from collapsing under its timely social message.
Grande’s voice, by contrast, is too pretty and sensitive for Penny to hold her own, especially with Hudson’s golden pipes. (As weird as it sounds, she just doesn’t have the raw power). Luckily, though, she offered some of the funniest line readings in the entire cast. The real weak Link here was Garrett Clayton, as Tracy’s love interest: His was a tepid performance, coasting on his Abercrombie Efron good looks. I’d say he was blown out of the water by Shahadi Wright Joseph’s Little Inez, but then again, everyone was: While his character’s politically moderate spinelessness (“I don’t want to get involved”) had to be reeducated, Inez seemed like she spit fire straight from the womb. Wokeness from the mouths of babes.
Blending body positivity with its thinly (ha!) veiled race allegory in the streets, taking protest signs and squaring off with demonstrators until the police show up, the cast of Hairspray Live! gave us a musical nudge to action. They’re not saying that you should do anything, but the “Baltimore Is Everywhere” sign hoisted by a black dancer can’t mean anything else. What could’ve been a glorious celebration is by necessity a protest song. Hairspray Live! was loud, proud and unwavering. And now that it’s here, who knew that it’d be just what we needed?
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.