I was dismissive about NBC doing Hairspray: Live, and I was wrong.

As a musical nerd (see: virtually every post I’ve ever written on this site) I’m usually sort of dismissive of the more popular musicals. The ones people cite as ‘the only musical I’ve ever seen’. I get why a network is gonna choose something that so many people know, but it seemed…obvious.

I was wrong.

Hairspray: Live had some of the same problems these shows always do—at this point, having camera issues or an on-screen flub is almost the point. But it’s almost infuriating that a movie John Waters made in 1988 and set in 1962 is still so relevant in 2016…and yet I still have to give the producers credit. There’s a hell of a lot in the script that could be lifted directly from the comments section of 2016 – about why Black Lives Matter, all the ways racism still hides in plain sight, and how many people still say “yeah, sure, it’s wrong, but why is it my problem?”

There’s also really clever staging – I particularly liked the scene at the segregated school dance, where Seaweed is encouraging Tracy to show off her dance moves.  It’s shot so that we can see she’s doing all the same stuff the black kids are doing on the other side – in fact, the things they taught her – but nobody’s even looking to notice that. 

There are a few nice moments like that. When constantly upbeat Tracy first says she wants to be the first female president – did I imagine it or was there a bit of a pause – a little melancholia? There was, I think. Similarly, the protest face-off calls to mind a million news reels we’ve seen this year…last year…art imitates life, or John Waters was psychic, or both…

The adults are played by crowd-pleasers like Martin Short and Harvey Fierstein and Andrea Martin and a truly, deliciously evil Kristin Chenoweth (I will refrain from comment on Rosie O’Donnell), but I only had eyes for Jennifer Hudson. In this role (maybe in all her roles?) she’s all talent and no warmth, and it is really working for her. Because why should Motormouth Maybelle be warm? She’s the general leading the kids into battle. Initially I wondered if giving her song I Know Where I’ve Been the full Effie-from-Dreamgirls passion was too much for this live musical, but it’s exactly what it needs. Watching her passion take over her whole body, and watching everyone else react in the moment, is the reason to do it live in the first place.

You know what doesn’t need to be live – or at all? Darren Criss’s interstitial ‘hosting’ segments. Why are these a thing and who the HELL is writing them? It’s no wonder he’s rushing through them, utterly embarrassed: “Those-are-some-powerful-women-who-know-how-to-speak-their-minds-and-they’re-bigger-blonder-and-more-beautiful-than-I-could-ever-be-and-they-are-taking-action-” …What?! First of all, why is a ‘real’ person comparing himself to fictional characters? Secondly, why do we need a recap? And why DARREN CRISS? He doesn’t have something else to do?

So…show choice, A-. Performances, an overall B: All the heartthrob teen boys blended together, and I hated Amber even though I was supposed to, but I loved Ephraim Sykes as Seaweed and God help me if I didn’t thoroughly enjoy Ariana Grande’s Penny. Efforts to include Darren Criss and/or remote locations across the US, all “We’re at Maddie Baillio’s old high school!”, D-. NOBODY CARES, and it doesn’t make it feel more live… 

Which means…they’ll undoubtedly do it again next year? It’s supposed to be Bye Bye Birdie, which brings up my eyeroll anew.