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"Hairspray Live": Tis the season for NBC's musical theater snark along

Not even Kristin Chenoweth could save “Hairspray Live” from the drunk cameramen.

The Broadway soprano played a tough broad television producer last night in the latest installment of live-for-television musicals, this one from NBC. Reviews from the majority of arm chair drama critics watching, tweeting and otherwise commenting on the live action were pretty clear: Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson and Andrea Martin were great.

When you could see and hear them.

How is it, cried a bunch of theater lovers who are mostly leftist liberals, that can Fox do musical theater so much better than NBC?

“I love how I’m only seeing half of the actor’s faces at a time. #Choices.” “Pitch Perfect” star Anna Kendrick tweeted, joining a chorus of confused viewers, some of whom questioned the camera operators sobriety.

"This sounds bad," said my mother, texting me from Baltimore, where the musical "Hairspray" is set.

Serious microphone issues, dim lighting and dodgy cameras coming at performers from all directions but all the wrong angles marred a “Hairspray” production that lacked the well-pomaded polish of “Grease Live,” Fox’s latest entry in the race to simulate the live theater experience on television, which was an undisputed hit.

In January, triple threat Julianne Hough starred as Sandy with a roster of film, TV and theater performers who managed to look very much like they had their acts together but were still running on instant adrenaline. “Grease” also benefitted from better casting chemistry, a cleverly revised book and slightly more populist material. Despite the timely relevance of a musical about bigoted television personalities bullying people of color, this “Hairspray” felt stiff and gummed up, especially when no one was dancing. Stand-out spins were contributed by Hough, who choreographed “Grease.” But some ensemble choreography was box-step simple, and even then, lead Maddie Baillio struggled to keep up.

Also crossing over from Fox, assistant director Alex Rudsinski, who shared his Emmy for “Grease” with “Hamilton” director Thomas Kail. This time, the theater luminary helming the ship was Kenny Leon, who is not known for his musical prowess. At all. While he has shepherded the plays of August Wilson to Broadway, let's take a moment to recall that his lone Great White Way musical, the Tupac Shukar revue “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” shuttered in a month.

Leon and his team made plenty of jagged little cuts between scenes, especially in songs like “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” which featured three A-list mother-daughter pairs: Baillio and Harvey Fierstein, Chenoweth and Dove Cameron and Andrea Martin and Ariana Grande. None of these pairings really paid off. Maybe Fierstein's broadness in a theater, but on TV he's too gimmicky to elicit empathy, Cameron was too whiny to be a mean girl and Grande too vapid of a pop star to act. Martin, meanwhile, introduced herself to a new generation of fans by dive-bombing out an on-set window.

What of the guys? Well, as activist Calvin Stowell noted, “Seaweed and Link have more sexual chemistry than anyone else.” He then quickly tweeted that he didn’t know “who was out.” Regardless, Ephraim M. Sykes, an ensemble member from the original cast of “Hamilton,” was a stand-out as Seaweed, the “Negro” boy whose smooth moves Tracy tries to emulate. (Please, internet, cough-up a gif of Sykes jumping off a giant pile of LPs and landing in a split.)

As per usual with these sorts of live-TV things, following along at home was half the fun, or maybe three-quarters of the fun this time. Watching on the West Coast, Kendrick kept the zingers coming till 1 a.m. Central. When the cast took their bows, no gaffe summed up the show better then the cameras cutting away from Chenoweth’s bow. The two-time Tony winner deserves an Emmy and a curtain call for playing a racist antagonist with such someone’s-gotta-do-it panache. A hanger-strap was dangling from the neck of her hot pink halter dress and her crab-brooch was crooked, a testimony her backstage hustle, maybe with less help than she has on Broadway

It’s hard to measure how well these TV events translate to theater ticket sales. If anything, they make memories grow fonder for anyone who’s seen a successful production of the televised show in question. (Shout-out here to Signature Theatre, whose 2011 “Hairspray” was a holiday hit for the Washington, D.C. theater scene.) What is clear is that these events galvanize theater people and theater lovers everywhere, to sing, zing and snark along. 

Photo credit: Trea Patton NBC/via AP

You can't stop the beat of live TV musicals, either online or in my living room

Tonight at 7 p.m., “Hairspray” joins the cannon of musicals getting the live-on-network television treatment. Following the success of “Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan,” “The Wiz” and “Grease,” NBC has assembled a cast of musical theater bona fides, pop stars and one virtual unknown who will not only sing hits from the Tony-winning musical, but inspire significant cyber chatter. Nielson ratings deemed last December’s “The Wiz” the most social live show ever, with the exception of broadcast sports or awards telecasts.

The “Hairspray” phone fun started early this morning, with the everyone from “Little Big Shots” kid wonder theater critic Iain Armitage to cast members from “Cats” posting photos of themselves sporting a digital teased-out Tracy Turnblad bouffant. There's even a custom emoticon hashtag.

 

 

 

For those unfamiliar with the John Waters’ film—and let’s be honest, there are probably plenty of people who haven’t seen the 1988 cult classic but can hum “You Can’t Stop the Beat”—the musical’s storyline follows teenage Tracy from her walk to school one Maryland morning in 1962 (“Good Morning, Baltimore”), to her grand finale star turn or the Corny Collins Show (the “Buddy Deane Show,” IRL.)

In between, Tracy becomes an unlikely Civil Rights hero, and blows through about three galloons of Aqua Net.

Maddie Baillio, a Manhattan Marymount College student who won the part in a future-star search audition, nabbed the lead role. She’ll be backed by a cast chosen to both satisfy musical theater fans and as teens who will tune in at the mere mention of Ariana Grande. The “Dangerous Woman” singer will capitalize on her naughty school-girl aesthetic by playing Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s alliterative best friend frequent detention partner. Two-time Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth, meanwhile, should be more of a draw for people who frequent actual theaters. Also in the mix: Harvey Fierstein, reprising his Tony-winning performance as Tracy’s mom, and Jennifer Hudson, belting a bit as Motormouth Mabel.

How well all these folks perform will be judged with real-time Twitter zingers from a nation of armchair theater critics, including me.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I don’t have an arm chair, or even a couch. I just relocated from Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis last month, and the movers broke my futon. But being a Baltimore native who loves anything showtune related, I’ll be watching even if I have to sit on the floor, simultaneously staring at my television and Twitter feed. So break a leg, Maddie Baillio and Co., and break a fingernail, America. And follow along. 

(Trae Patton/NBC via AP) 

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