Saturday, December 10, 2016

Off the Beat: NBC’s Hairspray Live!

Derek Hough and Maddie Baillio in NBC’s Hairspray Live! (Photo: Justin Lubin/NBC)

When NBC decided to revive the tradition of presenting live musicals with The Sound of Music Live! in 2013, it hit upon a successful formula for drawing in viewers during the holiday doldrums. The Sound of Music Live! and its successor, Peter Pan Live! were deliberately old-fashioned affairs, presenting well-worn favorites performed on a soundstage devoid of audience members, just as productions featuring the likes of Mary Martin had done decades before. Granted, they were plagued by technical problems, and the celebrities whom network executives cast as the leads didn’t measure up to the Broadway veterans who were relegated to supporting roles, but for the most part audiences didn’t seem to care. Last year’s live performance of The Wiz suggested that NBC was starting to learn from its mistakes, starting with its choice to produce a show that, while not as well-known as its predecessors, gave a talented cast of African-American performers a chance to shine. It looked like NBC would slowly but steadily improve on its initial formula, year by year, for as long as it chose to continue its live musical revivals.

Then Thomas Kail came along. When Fox tapped the Hamilton director to helm Grease: Live!, its answer to NBC’s live musicals, he created a fast-moving, dynamic spectacle that made the rival network’s offerings pale in comparison. Grease: Live! suffered from many of the same issues that had dogged NBC’s shows, from the weak source material to miscast celebrities. However, Kail’s decision to dispense with the staid approach of previous live TV musicals made those issues seem relatively unimportant; the process of putting on the show became the main attraction, from lightning-fast costume and set changes to a more cinematic approach to filming the show to the presence of an audience.

Kail’s success with Grease: Live! presented a clear threat to NBC’s dominance of this niche genre, and it’s evident from Hairspray Live! that the network saw recognized the danger. Whereas its previous musicals relied on their old-fashioned style as part of their charm, NBC’s offering for 2016 tries its damnedest to emulate the competition, albeit with mixed success. Indeed, one might suspect the choice of Hairspray was inspired by its superficial similarities to Grease: it’s a newer musical, but it’s based on a John Waters cult classic from the 80s, and is set in a cartoon version of the early 1960s. The success of the 2007 film adaptation was also surely a factor. In terms of its suitability for a live broadcast event, Hairspray makes a great deal of sense, as it’s an upbeat, frenetically paced show whose relentlessly catchy tunes and winking irony help to gloss over its lack of nuance. It’s a big, well-calibrated machine whose sole purpose is to entertain, enhanced by the presence of a prominent drag role and a superficial interest in the struggles of the civil rights era. Both of these elements give it a sense of edginess and subversive potential, without ever making it truly threatening (which isn’t to say that, at the end of the assorted awfulness offered up by 2016, it doesn’t feel like a small triumph to see civil rights protests and Harvey Fierstein in a dress in a big-budget production aimed at Middle America).

Harvey Fierstein  and Martin Short. (Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

The cast for Hairspray Live! takes the network penchant for celebrity casting even farther, although this time it’s mostly welcome. Seasoned Broadway actors such as Fierstein (reprising his role in the original Broadway production as Edna Turnblad, the heroine’s mother), Kristin Chenoweth, and the reliably hilarious Andrea Martin, among others, occupy most of the supporting (which, in this play, is more or less synonymous with “adult”) roles. Many of these are essentially vaudeville turns, and performers like Martin Short make the most of them, playing to the camera with evident glee that’s effective in small doses. And, of course, there’s Jennifer Hudson, who gets a number of bring-down-the-house moments that showcase her vaunted vocal instrument.

Some of the young leads are less memorable. Maddie Baillio does well as Tracy Turnblad, the star of the show, but Disney Channel alum Garrett Clayton is a bit too good at playing her love interest, Link Larkin, as a well-meaning but bland, self-absorbed pretty boy. Of course, Link is supposed to possess these qualities, since his characterization adds to the show’s relentless irony, but it often feels like Clayton isn’t entirely in on the joke. Former Hamilton cast member Ephraim Sykes and pop star Ariana Grande are more successful as second-banana couple Seaweed and Penny; both are able to add some physical characterization that makes them stand out. Even though Grande isn’t by any means an accomplished actress, she has a few funny, relatively subtle moments where she gives Penny a gangly awkwardness that, given the audience’s knowledge of who Grande is, serves as an effective metatheatrical joke.  (It’s worth noting in passing, however, that her voice is simply too powerful to mix well with some of the other performers in her ensemble numbers.) Derek Hough also manages to project some charisma (more, at any rate, than his sister Julianne did in one of the lead roles in Grease: Live!) as Corny Collins, eponymous host of the TV show that forms the focal point of the plot.

Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande. (Photo: Chris Haston/NBC)
The problem with Hairspray Live!, then, isn’t necessarily in the performers or the choice of show, but in the direction of the television special itself. That’s not to denigrate the contributions of choreographer Jerry Mitchell (who orchestrates some fantastic dance sequences), or costume designer Mary Vogt, or production designer Derek McLane, all of whom help to create an enjoyable, candy-colored version of 1960s Baltimore in which the cast can romp about. However, it’s hard to appreciate the things that cast and crew get right because of the oftentimes baffling choices that directors Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski make in terms of camera angles and pacing, as well as the lack of a fully involved audience. Leon directed last year’s The Wiz Live!, while Rudzinski worked with Kail on Grease: Live!, so it’s odd that they can’t find a way to make this year’s more cinematic presentation work. Unfortunately, from the opening number onwards, they do a poor job of framing the onscreen action. During the opener, “Good Morning Baltimore,” for instance, there’s an odd shot that puts Baillio’s Tracy in a distant corner of the screen; it’s meant to set up a subsequent shot from inside a car that nearly runs her over while she’s singing and dancing, a clear attempt at establishing more of a movie-like feel for the production, but instead it’s merely disorienting.

The confusing camera work becomes particularly apparent in the number of shaky close-ups that we’re presented with throughout the production. Mitchell’s choreography loses some of its excitement when we’re able to see only a portion of the action, and no one needs to get right in Hudson’s face to appreciate the power of her voice. But that’s just what we get, and often the close-ups are noticeably shaky, to boot; it ends up feeling like a musical directed by Paul Greengrass. There are also still lingering issues with the sound, and together the aural and visual shortcomings of the production throw off the performers’ rhythm, making it hard to catch jokes and discern clearly defined beats in individual scenes.

If NBC’s attempts to replicate the cinematic feel of Kail’s Grease feels like a botched job, their inclusion of a live audience also comes off as a half-measure. The frequent commercial breaks often involve shots of people watching the show from bleachers on the studio lot, and there’s a studio audience in the scenes on the set of the Corny Collins Show. However, the audience only interacts in certain circumstances – it’s as though the directors (or perhaps NBC executives) were uncomfortable with the idea of a fully live theatre experience, so they relegate the spectators to serving as the live audience for Corny Collins, and otherwise leave it out. The confusion’s evident in a few moments where seasoned stage performers like Chenoweth deliver a line and pause for laughs which never come.

As always, the chance to watch live theatre on television is a welcome change of pace from the usual fare that networks offer at this time of year. However, NBC’s attempt to change gears from producing nostalgic throwbacks to the slicker, more fast-paced style of Grease: Live! still requires further tweaks.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

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