Since NBC revived the live musical, the irony has been that lesser shows sometimes meet the demands of leaping to this considerably different medium more successfully. And that was true with “Hairspray Live!,” a frothy adaptation of the movie-turned-stage presentation that frequently burst with infectious energy.
NBC clearly took the lessons of Fox’s rightfully well-regarded production of “Grease” to heart. Indeed, if imitation is the sincerest form of television, “Hairspray” was inordinately sincere toward that other high-school-set musical — opening up the song-and-dance numbers to the streets, providing real-time looks behind the scenes and incorporating a live audience component that “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan” sorely lacked.
The main drawback, frankly, was that the network and producers went a bit overboard with the “live” aspect, featuring ear-splitting cut-ins from affiliate viewing parties around the U.S., including (where else?) Baltimore, where the story takes place. Having “Glee” alum Darren Criss essentially serve as the evening’s too-giddy emcee also felt like overt pandering to social media while squandering his considerable talents.
Still, that’s largely quibbling about a presentation that came about as close as TV can to conveying the allure of a live theatrical experience. Nor did the casting hurt, with show-stopping performances by the likes of Jennifer Hudson and Kristin Chenoweth, as well as a host of young performers — foremost among them newcomer Maddie Baillio in the pivotal role of Tracy Turnblad.
It’s Tracy, of course, who, in 1962, dreams of stardom on an afternoon dance show, despite a heavy-set frame that hardly mirrors the physiques of its snotty standouts. Once in the fold, she labors to integrate the program — which relegates African-Americans to “Negro Day” — a reminder of a segregated past that’s largely resolved here by the shared love of music and dance.
The uplifting nature of “Hairspray’s” message — embodied in musical form by songs like “Welcome to the ’60s” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” — might have originated in a 1988 John Waters film, but that sense of optimism and harmony felt particularly timely.
On a crass commercial level, NBC was also enterprising in incorporating sponsors for the TV show-within-the-show to essentially create live commercials — a gimmick that proved less irritating than one might expect.
That said, following Oreo’s product placement with an ad for the cookies was a bit too on the nose.
The elaborate production did contain a few modest glitches, among them an unseen voice that said “30 seconds” — apparently warning of an upcoming ad break — during one of the numbers; and cutting away from Chenoweth rather awkwardly and rudely during the curtain calls.
Then again, the whole point of “live” is the aura of unpredictability that it brings, so even a minor mix-up merely adds to the fun. And by the time the credits rolled, “Hairspray Live!” had delivered more than enough in that department to hold up quite well.