If ever there were a year that, to borrow a lyric from the great Jerry Herman, we "need a little Christmas, right this very minute," this would be it. How fortuitous, then that NBC and executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan decided--long before the election results rolled in, mind you--to present a musical that bubbles over with good cheer, even while promoting seriously endangered virtues.
Hairspray Live!, which aired Dec. 7, was the fourth offering in what has become a holiday tradition for the network, following productions of The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and, last year, The Wiz. For the uninitiated, the musical Hairspray--adapted from John Waters' 1988 cult film classic of the same title--opened on Broadway in 2002 and traced the tale of Tracy Turnblad, a plump, perky teen who becomes an unlikely celebrity in 1962 Baltimore, first by winning a role on a local TV dance show and then by campaigning to racially integrate the program.
Marc Shaiman's giddy score reveled in the inherent theatricality of that period's pop--R&B-drenched music that doo-wop and girl groups gave us before the Beatles invaded. It was a more innocent time, we're told, but also fraught beneath its shiny surface with the tensions that would erupt as the counterculture movement took hold. Shaiman and creative partner Marc Wittman's lyrics and Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book managed to reconcile a frothy tone with a story that overtly confronted intolerance of African Americans and others deemed outsiders.
For Hairspray Live!, Harvey Fierstein, who triumphed on Broadway as Tracy's equally outsized, huge-hearted mother, Edna--a role introduced on screen, and seemingly owned, by Waters' muse Divine--not only revisited the part, but provided the teleplay with Kenny Leon (who helmed last year's charming The Wiz Live!) co-directing with Alex Rudzinski. Fierstein and Leon are, notably, both baby boomers who lived through the era represented in Hairspray Live!, and stage veterans who have repeatedly documented our progress and lack of it through the last century.
Rudzinski, a Dancing With the Stars alum, worked with Hamilton director Thomas Kail on Grease Live!, Fox's recent foray into this terrain, which made use of a live studio audience. So did Hairspray Live!, but more prominently and to its detriment, with Darren Criss egging on cheering fans and conducting interviews between scenes. Notwithstanding this injection of reality TV slickness, the production offered soulful entertainment, emphasizing the buoyancy of the material without burying the message tucked underneath.
"This is America, darling, where everyone deserves a separate but equal chance to fail," sneered the villainous Velma Von Tussle, former beauty queen, manager of the station airing The Corny Collins Show and mother of Tracy's nemesis, Amber. The line had bite, aided by Kristin Chenoweth's bravura comic performance that showed off the soprano's enduring vocal agility.
Andrea Martin and Rosie O'Donnell had more brief but nicely tart turns as, respectively, Prudy Pingleton, a less glamorous but similarly unenlightened mom, and a tyrannical gym teacher. Martin Short, in contrast, seemed rather subdued as Edna's devoted spouse, Wilbur, though the affection between husband and wife was palpable.
In Hairspray,youth generally leads the way, opening older hearts and minds, and the younger cast members acquitted themselves nicely. Newcomer Maddie Baillio brought the right mix of innocence and pluck to Tracy, while Dove Cameron's Amber was witty enough to be worthy of her relation to Chenoweth's character. (The actresses also played mother and daughter in last year's Disney TV movie Descendants.) And Ariana Grande was surprisingly endearing as the nerdy Penny Pingleton, whose interracial romance with Seaweed Scrubbs (the superb Ephraim Sykes) figures into the plot.
The predictably starry company also included Jennifer Hudson, Sean Hayes, Derek Hough, and Billy Eichner, all clad in candy colors that looked good enough to eat--a delicious treat courtesy costume designer Mary E. Vogt.
To return to Herman, for those who have "grown a little sadder" of late, this was just the ticket for a cold December night.