NBC's 'Hairspray Live!' is a boisterous, heartfelt delight

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we owe NBC an apology.

Three years ago, when the network started what it hoped would be an annual live musical tradition with “The Sound of Music,” many of us tuned in to do a bit of ironic rubbernecking. But what started as a collective snark-a-thon has morphed rather quickly into a more purely joyful viewing experience.

Though preliminary ratings suggest that it wasn’t a hit on par with last year’s “The Wiz Live!," Wednesday night’s “Hairspray Live!” was a boisterous, technically dazzling, socially relevant and frequently very funny staging of the musical based on John Waters’ celebrated 1988 film.

Like the inspired take on “The Wiz,” “Hairspray Live!” was anchored by a terrific and shockingly assured newcomer, Maddie Baillio, making her professional acting debut as the rebellious, bouffanted Tracy Turnblad, whose attempts to integrate a teen dance show in 1960s Baltimore — and become Miss Teenage Hairspray in the process — form the center of the action.

Both cheeky and full of heart, “Hairspray Live!” was cast with near-perfection from a mix of Broadway treasures (Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein), comedy greats (Martin Short, Andrea Martin), telegenic, multitalented young’uns (Ephraim Sykes, Dove Cameron) and bona fide pop stars (Jennifer Hudson, Ariana Grande).

Given such riches, it’s truly difficult to single out the best performances. In a supporting role as soul singer Motormouth Maybelle, Hudson had the evening’s biggest musical knockout with the stirring “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Likewise, Chenoweth’s talent is hardly a secret, and her performance as the hilariously dreadful Velma Von Tussle is further evidence of her brilliance.

More of a discovery is Sykes, a member of the “Hamilton” company who gave a breakout performance as Seaweed J. Stubbs, a dancer with supernatural grace who falls for Tracy’s nerdy best friend, Penny Pingleton (Grande).

But I was particularly captivated — and even moved — by the wonderfully incongruous pairing of Fierstein and Short as Tracy’s brash, loving, proudly blue-collar parents, Edna and Wilbur Turnblad. (Fierstein reprised his Broadway role as Edna, which, dating back to Divine in Waters’ original film, has always been played by a man in drag.) They provided not only the best lines throughout the night (Edna’s quip about being “the biggest thing in brassieres” really got me), but some of the show’s most tender moments.  

Despite their physical contrast, the diminutive Short and the towering Fierstein were thoroughly believable as a rumpled, aging people still very much in love with each other. Their signature duet, “You’re Timeless to Me,” made me chuckle — and tear up just a smidge.

Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron made a canny choice with “Hairspray.” (The team also produced the hit 2007 movie musical starring John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, so they clearly know the material well.)

Though not a classic on the level of “Grease,” which Fox staged beautifully this year, or “The Sound of Music,” “Hairspray” features infectious pop music by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, that feels instantly familiar. If you didn’t know them already, you were probably singing along to “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” and “Good Morning Baltimore” by the time they ended.

Compared to “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan,” “Hairspray” also has a more modern, accessible sensibility that plays well on contemporary television. Despite its period setting — not to mention repeated use of the outdated term “negro” — it never felt like a dated throwback, though the producers probably could have done more to emphasize its timely themes of racial harmony and size acceptance.

A major part of this is the humor and irony inherent in the material, which, after all, originated in the singularly transgressive mind of John Waters. Despite its family-friendly sheen, the production had many Waters-esque touches, including (presumably fake) rats scurrying down the street and jokes about Midol, cross-dressing and bloody car upholstery. (In a  clever reference to Waters’ gleefully offensive classic “Pink Flamingos,” the street set also included a store called “Divine’s Pet Food,” complete with a flashing pink flamingo sign. Thankfully, the homage ended there.)

Equal parts cheeky and heartfelt, “Hairspray” feels better suited to this particular venue than the corny earnestness of “The Sound of Music” or “Peter Pan.” It’s a celebration of a messy family and a messy city that lends itself to the vibrant, anything-can-happen live format, where any less-than-polished moments seem like part of the fun.

Not that there were many. Directed by Kenny Leon, “Hairspray Live!” was, save for a few briefly unfocused shots and dropped mics, a nearly seamless affair, all the more impressive given the ambition and scope of the production.

After three years in a Long Island soundstage, this year’s show was relocated to spacious California. Despite the physical distance from Broadway, the move to the NBCUniversal lot paid off well. The action took place both indoors and out, on more elaborately dressed sets than I was able to keep track of.

It’s one thing to put on a show that’s professional and lacking any glaring mistakes; it’s another to do so with visual inventiveness. Zadan, Meron and Leon have raised the bar by figuring out how to do the latter. Beginning with the opening crane shot, which panned downward from the roof of an apartment building, there were striking flourishes throughout.

A few images that resonated with me: a flash of surveillance footage from the paddy wagon that takes Tracy off to jail, a dance sequence in a shadowy alley reminiscent of “West Side Story,” a shot from inside a speeding taxi, a trio of Motown singers who come to life and step out of a poster frame, rain trickling down the windows of a record store.

Through a very public process, Zadan and Meron have, with a little assistance from the team behind Fox’s live staging of “Grease,” essentially invented a new TV genre. And, to their credit, they’ve listened to feedback and learned from their mistakes. Without a live audience, some of the more triumphant moments in “The Wiz” last year didn’t land as powerfully as they might have.

So Zadan and Meron fixed that, bringing an audience to the NBCUniversal backlot. It made “Hairspray” feel like live theater rather than a show beamed from an undisclosed bunker. Even the live, “TRL”-ish “viewing party” that punctuated each commercial break wasn’t as annoying as it should have been.

While I wouldn’t necessarily want to go back and rewatch “The Sound of Music” or “Peter Pan,” there’s something pretty exciting about watching artists crack the code in front of our eyes. This skeptic has officially been converted.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

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