Review Roundup : "Hairspray Live!"

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder

With the amount of attention last night's broadcast of Hairspray Live! received, we wanted to get as much opinion about it as possible. So three of our critics, Noah Golden and Erin Karll chimed in with their thoughts. Here is our round up: 

Erin Karll (EK): NBC returns with another live musical event. This year’s production of 'hairspray' has been promoted for months all over the airwaves and social media.  I was looking forward to this production since NBC now has a few of these events under their belt. There were still some technical difficulties, as expected with any live performance. I was happy to see the cast and crew just continued on with the show, even in the dark sometimes. 

Noah Golden (NG): In terms of overall quality, “Hairspray” was probably the best live TV musical in that it most captured the magic and feeling of a real Broadway show and yet felt like a television production rather than a filmed version of theater. “The Wiz” with its proscenium set and Broadway-ready cast was a close second, but perhaps that’s merely because I find “Hairspray” stronger source material. Generally speaking, “Hairspray Live” had better casting than “Grease,” better flow than “Peter Pan” and better technical work than “Sound of Music.” 


EK: Maddie Baillio was a charming Tracy and did a great job taking the lead for the first time on this national and live production. Garrett Clayton was perfect as Link Larkin. He played the teen idol with a suave attitude. Baillio and Clayton had great chemistry during “Without Love” and “It takes Two”. Dove Cameron (Amber) was vicious in the bully scenes. Both Clayton and Cameron showed the arc of the characters beautifully. 

I adore the “Hollywood” casting of Rosie O’Donnell (gym teacher), Martin Short (Wilber), Derek Hough (Corny Collins), Harvey Fierstein (Edna).  Everyone on that list has stage experience so I was not surprised to see these veterans nail their scenes like the professionals they are.  I also must mention Kristin Chenoweth (Velma) and Jennifer Hudson (Motormouth Maybelle). They are both show stoppers and perfect for the parts they were given. 

NG: Garrett Clayton (whose make-up was distractingly thick) and Dove Cameron did their roles well, even if they were a touch bland. Kristin Chenoweth and Martin Short did fine comedic work while Ephraim Sykes, Derek Hough and Shahadi Wright Joseph brought a lot of personality to the table. But let’s be clear, “Hairspray Live” largely belonged to Harvey Fierstein and Jennifer Hudson. Powerhouse Hudson, whose voice is basically unrivaled in today’s musical climate, had the show’s most powerful and moving moment with “I Know Where I’ve Been.” If nothing else, that’s the song that will be remembered and replayed from Wednesday night’s broadcast. Fierstein, who seems to have Edna and the rhythms of “Hairspray” encoded in his DNA, was a perfect Mama Hen for the cast to play off of. His growly line readings and warm presence were just a joy to watch, so much so they made me almost forget about John Travolta’s misguided try at the role.

I can’t quite make up my mind about Ariana Grande, who can be both a very talented performer (her Mariah Carey-esque voice is clearly phenomenal and she has done solid comedic work on “Saturday Night Live”) and an infuriating one (there’s a mush-mouthed quality to her voice and a laid-back vibe that often feels counterproductive). She was, well, fine as Penny. Grande sang the mousy role well enough and had fine timing, but never really popped off the screen as much as she needed to. The same goes for our Tracy – Maddie Baillio – a newcomer who delivered a solid, if unexceptional, debut. While nerves seemed to get the better of Baillio during the first number (causing a few sharp notes and some out-of-breath moments), she settled down nicely and had a few standout moments, like during “Without Love.” However, I’m not sure she was better than the average Tracy you’re likely to see at a high-level high school. She just lacked the spunk and blistering conviction that made Marissa Jaret Winokur pop right off the stage. Yes, it’s hard to go toe-to-toe with such heavyweights as Fierstein, Short, Hudson and Martin, but Baillio and Grande often shrunk away while Sykes took full control of his solos.


EK: The set and overall look was wonderful. The sound was true to the show and was similar to what I would expect to hear at a live production. Again there were some technical issues that caused some missed and muddled lines, just a reminder that they are doing this live and one time only. And mostly those times were during the group numbers when being able to see the whole stage helps. I thought the commercials and product placements were forced. They used the fact the musical has a show within a show to host some advertisements. I thought they could have had more fun with them and create a nicer flow. I did love the live studio audience and am happy to see the producers decided to add this to the production. That gives the actors something to aim for and the at home audience a better feel of the energy going on. 

NG: Technical problems are still a reigning problem, whether they are wildly inconsistent microphones, missed light cues or misbehaving remote-controlled rats. There’s a weird, synthetic quality to putting a (purposely) kitschy and larger-than-life stage show on screen which none of these broadcasts have been able to overcome. Maybe these networks should just air recorded versions of Broadway musicals (like the recent “She Loves Me” webcast) or try another style of show that’s not already so familiar to theatergoers.

Overall Note

EK: Overall it was a solid production that told the story well. The message of the show is to see beyond the book cover and fight for what is right. This was an amazing piece to see on national television when the country seems so divided. This is a time to unite in front of the TVs and enjoy a show and applaud the amazing talent that it takes to complete a huge live event. 

NG: But I can’t really complain too much. It is my job here to pick apart and analyze “Hairspray Live” and, on that merit, there were many flaws. Pacing problems prevented the show from really gelling and the cast was inconsistent at times. But, truth be told, I really enjoyed the broadcast. I laughed out loud a few times and loved seeing so many veteran comedians play off each other. I greatly enjoyed hearing Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s lively score and the message of racial tolerance and understanding seemed more relevant now than when the show debuted in 2002. The broadcast ended with Jennifer Hudson singing the lyrics, “we’ve come so far but we we’ve got so far to go,” a sentiment that really describes the state of televised musical and, oh yes, the country as a whole.