NEW YORK — There may have been enough aerosol spray to burn off the rest of our ozone layer, but Wednesday’s ambitious live version of the musical “Hairspray” on NBC was worth the environmental damage. It was light and fun and soon had you stuck.
Fittingly for a musical about pushing the boundaries, this was not a safe telecast in any way. It was shot with many outside scenes and with complex moving parts. Actors dodged real cars and buses, they dodged real dodge balls and some dancers dodged other dancers doing somersaults.
“This is America. You have to think big to be big,” one character says in the show, and this broadcast thought mighty big. There was a town riot, real rain, mechanized rats, swooping cameras, a real audience and golf carts racing between scenes.
Liberation was the theme — musical, racial and personal — in a story set in Baltimore 1962 and led by the pleasingly plump Tracy Turnblad. She lives to dance on “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s version of “American Bandstand.” She also wanted to integrate its all-white environs, and, along the way, be accepted for her full-figured self. All this was enlivened by a winning score by Tony Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Based on filmmaker John Waters’ subversive homage to his youth in early 1960s Baltimore, the telecast from NBC’s backlot in Universal City, California, was frantic and sugary and plagued by small technical glitches early, but smoothed out and ended with a happy bang. There even was time in the three-hour show for Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande to duet.
Harvey Fierstein provided a new teleplay and seized back the padded dress of Tracy’s mom. He had played the role on Broadway, taking it from Divine in the original film, but lost it to John Travolta in a 2007 film remake. On Wednesday, Fierstein was at his reliable best, particularly when he uttered the line “Hold mommy’s waffles” in his famous baritone.
Nice touches included getting two former Tracys — Ricki Lake from the movie and Marissa Jaret Winokur from Broadway — to make cameo appearances. Dove Cameron, from Disney’s “Liv and Maddie,” was a great mean girl and Ephraim Sykes was an ultra-smooth Seaweed. Derek McLane’s great `60s-inspired sets also nicely nodded to past productions (“Waters Plumbing” read one store sign).
These live telecasts have a knack for uncovering fresh talent and that was again the case with Maddie Baillio, a college student plucked from more than 1,300 hopefuls to play the plus-sized protagonist. Baillio looked relaxed as Tracy and did herself proud alongside a glittery cast.
“Hairspray Live!” had one special trick up its sleeve — but this pyrotechnic was very human. Just when it seemed that the show would evaporate into a cloud of corny bubbles, the glorious Jennifer Hudson would arrive and produce the soulful gravity that the show needed. (Her “I Know Where I’ve Been” was simply jaw-dropping).