At last, we finally have a decent video resource for the Broadway musical classic Hairspray. The earlier film version has its admirers (mostly among people who never actually saw the stage show), but it completely fudged the tone of the piece and offered a horribly uneven cast capped by a terrible performance by John Travolta as Edna.
This live TV version, on the other hand, sticks quite faithfully to the stage show, only making some slight cuts and abbreviations here and there for the sake of the running time, and features superb performances across the board. Above all else, Harvey Fierstein reprises his legendary performance as Edna Turnblad, offering a chance for the non-theater-going public to see how this role is supposed to be done (Fierstein, a successful playwright and musical librettist, also did what little adaptation had to be done to the stage book for this production).
Newcomer Maddie Baillio makes an absolutely delectable Tracy. As good as Nikki Blonsky was in the earlier film, she lacked the fundamental sex appeal that is so important to this role. A good Tracy should be not only adorable, but also genuinely sexy; Baillio has both qualities locked down, and her singing, dancing and comedy skills are almost on a par with Marissa Jaret Winokur’s legendary original.
Ariana Grande did an impressive job of not hogging the spotlight…she’s worked well in ensembles before, of course, but that was before she was the most famous person in the cast, so it’s impressive that she didn’t overpower her colleagues in the role of Penny. That said, she was also beyond adorable as the pig-tailed, bespectacled wallflower and steamingly sexy after she comes out of her shell, and she sang with all the power we know she possesses.
Kristen Chenoweth was show-stealingly marvelous as villainess Velma Von Tussle, even managing to make the cheesy “Miss Baltimore Crabs” seem thrilling. Dove Cameron was an amusing Amber, if perhaps just a bit too likable for the part…even on her most venomous lines, she came off a bit too nice in this version. That said, she was a damned sight better than the annoying Brittany Snow in the first movie version.
Garrett Clayton was a less interesting Link than Matthew Morrison in the original Broadway cast or Zac Efron in the first film…he has the basic style of the part down and is likable enough, but neither his singing nor his acting approach that of his two famous predecessors. But Ephraim Sykes is just as dynamic and charismatic a Seaweed as Elijah Kelley was in the earlier film, and Derek Hough is easily the best Corny Collins in the history of the role, stopping the show with a big number interpolated specifically for him, “Ladies’ Choice”.
Jennifer Hudson looks a bit too slender in the role of Motormouth Maybelle…they really should have padded her costume more…but that’s the only conceivable complaint about her performance; her singing and acting were superb, especially on the unforgettable eleven-o’clocker “I Know Where I’ve Been”. Martin Short does somewhat overplay the part of Wilbur…the role really calls for a subtler actor like Dick Latessa…but at least his overplaying was actually funny, rather than just annoying like Christopher Walken in the first film, and he does have the warmth the part needs.
More than any one performance, though, what makes this film such a revelation is that it actually captures how the show plays on stage in a way the earlier movie didn’t even attempt. The feeling of a musical-comedy fantasy landscape just real enough to make you care about the racial issues at the story’s center is preserved, and the jarringly indecisive mood swings of the alternately blithe and gritty movie version are nowhere to be found. In particular, Hairspray has one of the most thrilling final scenes of any musical ever seen on Broadway, and for the first time audiences can witness its glories in the comfort of their own living rooms.
The show does interpolate the two songs written for the movie (including the film’s credits song “Come So Far (Got So Far To Go)”, which might be a mistake as it comes off as quite anticlimactic after the epic finale), and deletes the stage show’s weakest and least plot-relevant song, “The Big Dollhouse”. But apart from that, and a few trimmings to the plot to keep it within the allotted TV running time, this really is basically the stage show transplanted to the screen. Even the occasional fourth-wall breaks (which, to the producers’ credit, were far less relentless than they had been in Grease Live) don’t really hurt the effect, as Hairspray is, as I stated, a musical-comedy fantasy that winks at the fourth wall a few times even in the original stage script.
The dancing is just as thrilling as it was in the stage production, which is key in this show where the very plot itself revolves around dance, and the production has the same energy that characterized the Broadway show. Apparently this did less well in its initial viewing than some of the other live musicals (such as The Sound of Music, Grease, The Wiz and Peter Pan), but that’s to be expected, as it’s a newer and slightly less well-known show than the old-school classics those were drawn from. But now that people have actually seen it, I imagine it will at least equal The Wiz Live and Grease Live and far outstrip the inferior Peter Pan and The Sound of Music adaptations in its actual legacy. After all, which would you rather watch…a production of Peter Pan starring Christopher Walken, or a flawless recreation of the Broadway production of Hairspray with Harvey Fierstein in his original role? Seriously, it’s not even a choice.