Hairspray Live! review on ITV2 – ‘disappointing and a bit of a mess’
“It’s time for a star who looks just like you,” go the lyrics of Hairspray, the musical based on the John Waters’ film about an overweight girl who spearheads a civil rights movement. It’s a message that still hasn’t caught on, so broadcasting a show that celebrates bigger, blacker and less conventional bodies feels like a timely move.
Hairspray Live! is the fourth live musical telecast to be produced by NBC after The Wiz Live!, Peter Pan Live! and The Sound of Music Live! It’s also a bit of a mess. Some of the camera work, full of 360 degree spins and little framing of the actual choreography, is baffling and the sound balancing is duff. With an ad break after every song, Hairspray Live! fails to make the most of either the material or the format.
The all-star casting has its fun moments though. Harvey Fierstein, who also adapted the original book for television, is a scene-stealing Edna Turnblad and Ephraim Sykes is a breath of fresh air as Seaweed J Stubbs. Broadway stalwarts Kristin Chenoweth and Jennifer Hudson, as Velma Von Tussle and Motormouth Maybelle, provide some much-needed live performance nous, with Hudson’s I Know Where I’ve Been the closest the stop-start format allows the show to come to an emotional high point. Chenoweth milks the live aspect for all its worth, throwing in a few sparky improvs when it all goes, inevitably, wrong.
The younger performers are given less room to shine. It’s indicative of the lax approach to choreography (odd for a show about dancing) that the brilliance of the sweet-voiced Maddie Baillio’s dance moves, as Tracy Turnblad, is informed rather than demonstrated. Ariana Grande is a quirky Penny Pingleton but there are no sparks in her relationship with Seaweed and her conspicuously modern voice feels out of place in the 1960s jams.
Fierstein’s re-write misses the opportunity to sharpen the racial politics of the original, softening them instead, with some of the overtly political lyrics about poverty and white liberalism elided. The show’s black characters are largely absent from the first hour, which feels ironically reminiscent of the in-universe Corny Collins Show sidelining performers of colour. Most egregiously, the film’s triumphant final note, in which black dancer Little Inez wins Miss Teenage Baltimore, never materialises, instead opting for a “twist” that’s about as convincing as the ensemble’s actual twisting.
There are a few numbers too good to be dampened: Mama Welcome to the Sixties, Run and Tell That, and the Nicest Kids in Town are all enjoyably groovy, the show’s natural exuberance shining through. If you’re a fan, stick to the 2007 film instead: it’s got more soul, in every sense.