BWW Review: HAIRSPRAY LIVE!, The Show Must Go On
Back in 2016 the NBC lot in Los Angeles transformed into 1962 Baltimore for the televised special Hairspray Live!, the fourth of the network's made-for-tv musicals. With Harvey Fierstein adapting the original 2002 book and reprising the character of Edna, it was a joyous success. Now, Universal is making the telecast available to UK audiences for the first time for a mere 48 hours after its premiere on their YouTube channel.
When chubby teenager Tracy fulfils her dream and unexpectedly wins a role on the famous dance program The Corny Collins Show, she becomes an overnight celebrity. She uses her newfound status of teenage sensation to bring racial integration to the television show and put her friends' talent on display.
Produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (who also made the 2007 film starring John Travolta), the production cast then-college sophomore Maddie Baillio after putting out a nationwide open call for the part of Tracy. Besides Fierstein's iconic portrayal of her mother, it featured big names such as Martin Short (Tracy's father Wilbur), Jennifer Hudson (Maybelle "Motormouth" Stubbs), Kristin Chenoweth (Velma Von Tussle), Derek Hough (Corny Collins), Dove Cameron (Amber, Tracy's nemesis), and even Ariana Grande (Tracy's friend Penny), while Billy Eichner, Sean Hayes, and Rosie O'Donnell made special appearances throughout.
With Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski directing the event and Derek McLane curating the art department, Hairspray Live! is a feast for the eyes with plenty of clever directorial touches and gorgeous colourful sets. Baillio is stunning in her debut and doesn't lose her shine even when she's surrounded by all the well-known celebs.
Hudson steals the scene with every breath she takes, delivering a heart-stoppingly poignant "I Know Where I've Been". Cameron and Chenoweth are perfect as the mean-girls mother-daughter duo, not only they look related, their chemistry is flawless too. Mega popstar Grande is also surprisingly lithe as the initially understated friend, turning Penny into a bona fide diva in the finale.
The piece definitely hit differently on Friday 29th, when the former police officer who murdered George Floyd a couple of days earlier was finally placed under arrest after riots broke out all around the United States to demand justice.
While it's definitely a feel-good, dancey, big-time musical Hairspray is unafraid to call out the ever-jarring issues of racism and fat-shaming for what they are, making it a topical piece of theatre on many levels. What's disheartening is that more than half a century after the time period it's set in and just over 30 years from John Waters's original film, the situation hasn't changed much.
Photo credit: Brian Bowen Smith/NBC | 2016 NBCUniversal Media, LLC