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BWW Album Review: HAIRSPRAY LIVE!

Skeptics of musical theater like to ask, "But how do they know the song?" when characters join in during a musical number. One of the virtues of HAIRSPRAY is that the audience itself actually does this: the songs are so catchy that we start singing along. This is appropriate, given the show's message of inclusivity and empowerment of the ordinary. Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics) are responsible for the irresistible score of this show, set in Baltimore in the 1960s, that follows plucky, overweight teenager Tracy Turnblad's quest to integrate the "Corny Collins Show," an AMERICAN BANDSTAND-style teen dance party that she adores. Along the way, she falls in love with one of its stars, locks horns with another, makes new friends who are black and have a different perspective and a different way of dancing, and finds a place for herself on the show and in life. And her mother Edna and best friend Penny also benefit from Tracy's widening world.

Thanks to the Masterworks Broadway release of the soundtrack of NBC's HAIRSPRAY LIVE!, we have three recorded versions of HAIRSPRAY: the Original Cast Recording of the Broadway show (based on a non-musical John Waters film), the movie soundtrack, and now the studio recording of the cast of the live TV musical, which hews closer to the stage version than the movie. Shaiman and Wittman captured the spirit of the 1960s, and paid tribute to a range of its musical styles, in their effervescent score. In fact, it's such effective pastiche that those who are not enamored of the music of the period may prefer the songs in HAIRSPRAY to those that inspired them.

If the instant-classic opening number "Good Morning Baltimore" is the test of a production of HAIRSPRAY, then Maddie Baillio, the star of HAIRSPRAY LIVE!, is under pressure to make it her own. Her version may be less original than those of Marissa Jaret Winokur and Nikki Blonsky, but she puts it over with an appealing enthusiasm and excitement. It's the perfect "I Am" song, introducing us to everything we need to know about Tracy: her bubbly personality, her amazing self-confidence and openness, her ambition. Dorothy Gale wanted to escape over the rainbow, but Tracy Turnblad wants to be a star right in the midst of her cruddy neighborhood, which she sees through rainbow-colored glasses. She's the ultimate "Cockeyed Optimist," and her unreasonable but valiant joy wins over an audience immediately.

Baillio's performance has the same flaw as Shanice Williams's did in NBC's THE WIZ: both were discovered as "voices," and had the singing talent to play leads--but neither had great facial or physical expressiveness. Baillio endeared herself to live audiences by giggling helplessly (while staying in character and song!) as her mic cut out during the climax of "Good Morning Baltimore," but simply isn't yet as accomplished an actress as she is a singer. Listening to her on the album, however, is a pleasure. (The tech is flawless in the studio recording, and was also corrected for the re-broadcast and DVD of the live show.) She shines in her most important numbers: "Good Morning Baltimore"; the delightful "I Can Hear the Bells," a sprightly and inventive tribute to "Wall of Sound" love songs; and the slowed-down reprise of "Good Morning Baltimore" (with different lyrics), crooned from prison.

The low point of the album is Ariana Grande's delivery of the first line in "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now": "Stop delling me whuh du do-oo." Her ultra-contemporary, unaspirated and indistinct pop "accent" is both anachronistic and grating. She never really "played" Penny; she merely strutted ironically through the role as if she were in a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch. She may also be the least convincing eyeglasses wearer since Marilyn Monroe in HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (but at least that was meant to look incongruous). It's frustrating that someone who prides herself on her talents as a mimic couldn't find a more appropriate sound for this role.

The only problem with Jennifer Hudson playing Motormouth Maybelle is the optics: how can post-Weight Watchers, almost too-slim Hudson be the "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" earth mother, who literally embodies the show's paired messages of plus-size positivity and cross-racial understanding? These problems don't exist on a recording, but even on television Hudson redeemed herself as soon as she started to sing "I Know Where I've Been." Shaiman and Wittman later wrote a meta-Broadway song called "Let a Big Black Lady Stop the Show," which surely referred to HAIRSPRAY's own deus ex Motown. Hudson may not have been big, but she certainly stopped the show. In fact, she is an improvement over the great Queen Latifah in the movie--Latifah's silky interpretation of the song was in tune with the movie's glibness, but in our current moment Hudson's searing performance is just right, bringing real emotion and pain into the song.

It was a joy to learn that Harvey Fierstein would be returning as Edna Turnblad, the role he originated on Broadway. This decision sounded an auspicious note of authenticity and edginess for a major-network adaptation. Perhaps the creative team took a lesson from the disappointing movie casting of John Travolta. Fierstein is still an appealing choice for the role, though his voice has aged more than his appearance. (He looked convincing on TV as hausfrau Edna and spectacular as post-makeover Edna.) His signature gravelly tones, feminized for Edna, are softer (sometimes sounding painfully strained) and harder to understand than on the OCR. But it feels right to have him in the role, both as an actor and as a kind of guiding spirit over the production (not to mention the author of the teleplay, adapted from Marc O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book).

Martin Short seemed to be a perfect choice to play Edna's husband, kind-hearted Wilbur Turnblad. But somehow the live-television circus overshadowed his charisma. It's still a treat to hear him sing "You're Timeless to Me," the sly love duet with Edna that's essentially a reworking of "You're Awful," from the movie of ON THE TOWN, in which the lover flatters by seeming first to insult. The swinging, Sinatra-style arrangement (common to all three recordings) is a delight.

One happy surprise of the live show was Dove Cameron, whose performance as Amber Von Tussle was polished and self-assured; she made a perfect mean girl, and left the viewer wanting more. Unfortunately, her only song is the obnoxious (intentionally, but that doesn't make it any nicer to hear) "Cooties," a nasty attack on Tracy. Cameron was well cast as the daughter of Kristin Chenoweth, who herself, cast as racist, bullying stage mother and ex-pageant-Queen Velma Von Tussle, brought an excess of talent to the role. Meanies might not deserve the best songs, but with this cast that's regrettable. Chenoweth wrings the utmost out of "Miss Baltimore Crabs," but hurling so much at such a thin song makes it seem like a threadbare Disney-villainess incantation. Unfortunately, the additional material she was given was simply a reprise of "Baltimore Crabs," with a few new lyrics. I will hope that some future live TV musical (since there seem to be more on the way) will provide her with a role that's worthy of her talent.

Derek Hough gave a smooth turn as Corny Collins...or seemed to until I listened again to Clarke Thorell's perfectly creamy, anodyne vocals on the OCR, which incorporated both a period flavor and some relatively thrilling flourishes. (It's as tiresome to complain about it as it is to witness it, but so many Broadway performers have attained a level that "names" have to struggle to achieve.) Hough, whose dancing is better than his (pleasant) singing, was given the song "Ladies' Choice," seemingly to take the pressure off a less adequate vocalist, Garrett Clayton, who made a handsome but unremarkable Link. Three songs for Corny Collins--including "It's Hairspray," a lighter-than-aerosol advertising ditty that is given an excessively dramatic orchestration here--throws off the balance of the young male characters.

The album closes with a duet between Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande: "Come So Far (Got So Far to Go)," a song from the closing credits of the HAIRSPRAY movie. If nothing else, it offers a rejoinder to those who think that the finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat," goes on for too long; this one is less exciting, and outstays its welcome. "You Can't Stop the Beat," on the other hand, is a song that brings audiences to their feet, and it's a highlight of the album. Like most of HAIRSPRAY's music, it's as contagious as "cooties," and more danceable.

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From This Author Remy Holzer

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