Thursday, December 8, 2016

Hairspray Live! (Storyline Entertainment, Universal Television, Sony, New Line, NBC-TV, December 7, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was technically called Hairspray Live! and was an adaptation of the 2002 Broadway musical Hairspray, which in turn was based on John Waters’ marvelous 1988 film about how heavy-set, beehive-haired Tracy Turnblad not only crashed her way onto the dance floor of Corny Collins’ American Bandstand-like rock ’n’ roll TV show but started a civil-rights revolution that broke down the segregation between Blacks and whites in the Baltimore music scene. Though the show was filmed in 2007 (while it was still in the middle of its seven-year run on Broadway; it racked up 2,642 performances from 2002 to 2009 and it’s been revived since) and I’m sure Charles and I have the film somewhere in our DVD backlog, I realized with a start that I’d never actually seen the musical before, though I’ve watched the 1988 film at least twice. (John Gabrish and I watched it on home video in 1989 and later Charles and I saw it together at a San Diego Public Library screening.) I knew instantly from the opening song, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” that I was in for a very different experience from John Waters’ film even though the basic plot was carried over virtually without change — at least until the final sequence — and it was going to be a considerably lighter one in which the fun aspects of the original material would be played up and its political implications (pretty much de trop these days in the age of TrumpAmerica and its return to the pre-civil rights ideas of “Americanism” and white supremacy that were being seriously challenged in 1962, when Hairspray takes place) played down.

That’s pretty much what we got, though the show was still fun and Tracy Turnblad’s (newcomer Maddie Baillio, who does a good job filling Ricki Lake’s ample dance pumps even though she’s not that good a dancer and, as in previous NBC “live” musical productions, the skill and professionalism of the chorus dancers helps to make up for deficiencies in the leads) worm-turning triumph from on-campus loser and bullying victim to Hairspray Queen on Corny Collins’ show, apostle of integration and girlfriend of hot stud rocker Link Larkin (Garrett Clayton) is still moving, especially for someone like me who still remembers how I was treated in school. The big difference between Hairspray the John Waters film and Hairspray the musical (written by Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell, with songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) was the sheer relentlessness of the music. This has got to be one of the most music-heavy musicals ever created — the singing-to-talking ratio is so heavily weighted towards singing that the dialogue sequences, and indeed the entire plot, seem to be there just to set up the songs and the big production numbers to them — and rather than the ironic use of music in Waters’ original film (mostly actual records of the period and with a charmingly anachronistic title song by Rachel Sweet in her normal late-1980’s style), the Shaiman-Wittman songs are pastiches of late-1950’s and early-1960’s rock and soul. The songs are entertaining enough and do their jobs, but there’s only one here that even approaches greatness: the gospel-tinged soul song “I Know Where I’ve Been” sung by the Black D.J. Motormouth Maybelle (played in Waters’ original film by 1950’s soul legend Ruth Brown and here by Jennifer Hudson) in the second act, and I’m not sure whether that song stood out because it’s that much better than the rest of the score or because Jennifer Hudson tore into it with the same drama and power with which she’d sung “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in her Academy Award-winning performance in the film Dreamgirls.

Hairspray Live! was adapted from the Meehan-O’Donnell book by Harvey Fierstein, who was also in the production playing Tracy’s mother Edna (continuing the cross-gender casting tradition of this role established when Waters cast Divine, in her last film before her untimely death, in the original movie; Fierstein was also in the 2002 Broadway production of the musical and was the only original cast member who repeated their role in this production, and though he played the part well enough his gravelly voice has always annoyed me). The plot centers around Tracy Turnblad’s desire to crash Corny Collins’ dance troupe — she says that she goes to high school (where she’s constantly getting assigned detention for no particular reason except the woman principal running the place just doesn’t like her attitude) and watches his show, and does nothing else (though at the end of the program, after she’s won her heart’s desires — Link’s class ring and the Miss Hairspray prize — she announces that she wants to go to college and major in musicology with a minor in ethnic studies). When Corny Collins announces an open audition for dancers, Tracy wants to cut school to apply, and her mom says no but her dad Wilbur (Martin Short, oddly disappointing in a role the late Jerry Stiller, Ben’s dad, played to perfection in the 1988 film), who ekes out a living for the Turnblads running a company that makes and sells whoopee cushions and other “novelty” products, says yes. Despite a lot of cruel jokes about her weight, and her hackle-inducing comment that she wants every day on the show to be “Negro Day” (a once-a-month event during which Motormouth Maybelle hosts and the Black dancers get to be in the foreground instead of being stuck behind a rope — in a lot of venues that weren’t big enough to have separate white and Black sections, a rope was hung across the dance floor to keep white and Black couples separate, and a lot of times the rope came down in mid-dance), she gets on the show.

She also goes to the dark side of town to visit Motormouth Maybelle and her star dancer, Seaweed J. Stubbs (Ephraim Sykes), and Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton (played by current music star Ariana Grande, who turned down the producers’ offer to write additional songs for her and insisted on playing the part come scritto, though what the original script gave the character to sing was so nondescript I suspect Grande would have come off better if she had let them write her extra material) falls hard for Seaweed just as Tracy has her heart set on Link. That arouses the ire of Corny Collins’ producer, Velma Von Tussle (Kristin Chenoweth), who is rigging the entire show, including the Miss Hairspray contest (which, it’s established, she won herself during her teen years), for the greater glory of her bitch daughter Amber (Dove Cameron, who previously played Chenoweth’s daughter in a Disney TV-movie called Descendants), who makes a nice villainess and is particularly effective in her song “Cooties,” sung as her entry in the dance contest that climaxes the film (and which takes place in Corny’s studio instead of at an amusement park which Black Baltimoreans sought to integrate — a real-life incident Waters remembered from his childhood and which helped inspire the story in the first place). Amber and her mom figure she has the contest won because Tracy had got herself arrested in a civil-rights demonstration and, though she escaped (absurdly easily, and in a way Messrs. Meehan, O’Donnell and Fierstein never quite explain), the Von Tussles, mère et fille, are convinced she won’t dare show for the final broadcast. At one point the Von Tussles are convinced Tracy is hiding in the huge prop hairspray can that adorns the set of the dance-off finale, but she isn’t — she slips into the studio by the side and does her big number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” (fulfilling the plot’s conceit that Tracy has been able to overcome her size and become a great dancer by learning spectacular soul moves from her Black friends), following which Motormouth Maybelle emerges from the can (and yes, there’s a scatological joke about that) for a final big song — and as if that weren’t enough, the producers of Hairspray Live! put in a last duet between Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande that has no part in the plot but simply serves as a way to showcase two of the bigger names in their cast.

Hairspray Live! was directed by Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski, and from Leon’s prior reputation I assume he choreographed and staged the big spectacular dance numbers while Rudzinski directed the plot portions, such as they are. Hairspray Live! was an engaging but somewhat lumbering production — it ran three hours (less commercials, some of which were cleverly integrated into the show the way they often were in the 1950’s before the FCC cracked down on that sort of thing, only to allow it again in today’s age of blind worship of The Market) compared to the 92 minutes of Waters’ original film, and it seemed bloated — and while one felt for all the good-looking young people who were working so hard and giving their best, it’s one of those shows in which the old pros, Kristin Chenoweth and Jennifer Hudson, came out with an air of “step aside, kids, and let us show you how it’s done.” I could have done without the ring of pink smoke that engulfed Chenoweth at the end of her big number, but the folks in charge were obviously inserting this as a reminder of what’s become Chenoweth’s most famous role, as Elphaba the Wicked Witch of the West in Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, the big musical off-take of the Oz stories (in which the Witch’s name was “Momba,” by the way). Chenoweth has managed to maintain her kewpie-doll appearance and affect even as she’s grown old enough to be the bratty young girl’s mother instead of playing the bratty young girl herself, and though the top of her voice is a bit shrill she’s still one of the few non-operatic singers who knows how to do coloratura. Overall, Hairspray Live was entertaining enough, though a bit too long for its own good, and NBC is planning these things out far enough that there was a promo for the one they plan to do in 2017, Bye Bye Birdie with Jennifer Lopez as Rosie, the role Janet Leigh played in the movie — and it’ll be interesting to see who they get to do the Ann-Margret role and whether she can duplicate Ann-Margret’s orgasmic moan, “Boye-Boye BURT-hee,” in the title song!