'Hairspray Live' was like watching Super Bowl — in a good and bad way

With "Hairspray Live," some great talent and fine performances were undercut by network over-production.

Watching NBC’s “Hairspray Live” on Wednesday night was like watching the Super Bowl — in both a good and bad way.

In the end, it was more on the good side in terms of the story and performances. But the bad network business surrounding the songs was almost too much to bear at times.

On the plus side, viewers got to see some of the finest talent in popular culture performing on one of the biggest and most eye-popping stages in American life. I am talking mainly about Jennifer Hudson and Kristin Chenoweth.

But on the minus side, the three hours of live TV was hopelessly over-produced and annoyingly cheapened by network attempts to generate false energy, such as the use of a silly backstage correspondent and cutaways to "watch parties" featuring personalities from network affiliates in cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Houston and, of course, Baltimore — where the musical is set. 

You can only take people going, “Whoo-hoo, this is so exciting,” so many times before it gets old, even if the whoo-hooers include Catherine Pugh, the new mayor of Baltimore, at Café Hon in Hampden.

I especially mistrusted the tweets during the broadcast that sounded like they were written by network publicists: “Hairspray, you had me at two members from SCTV,” or “You’re killing it, Maddie." (Maddie Baillio played Tracy Turnblad in the production)

Just in case the audience didn’t get the message on social media, the producers had two cast members say, “Maddie, you’re killing it,” during one of the breaks.

There was nothing desperately wrong with Baillio's performance. It was solid from beginning to end. But I have to be honest, it left me mostly cold. And this is not a production that should leave you cold for two seconds.

That certainly was not how I felt when Hudson took center stage as Motormouth Maybelle or even Ariana Grande as the transformed Penny Pingleton after her rescue by Seaweed J. Stubbs (Ephraim Sykes). Add Sykes to the list of people who lit up the screen both as singer and dancer in bigger and better ways than Baillio.

The over-production was not limited to the breaks for commercials. It was intruded into the musical itself.

For example, Martin Short and Harvey Fierstein as Wilbur and Edna Turnblad were singing the final verse of what had been a lovely duet. It was so lovely it almost managed to transport me out of my reality the way a great theater production does when you are part of that live, communal experience.

But just as they approached the end of their number, the director changed the viewer's sight line from basically straight on to overhead with a street light in bottom of the frame. It is something you might see at the end of a number in an MGM musical film.

But this is not a film, and it totally jarred me out of the reverie of their song and reminded me of the artifice of 13 cameras and a director trying to make use of all of them, whether they add anything or not. Here, that semi-overhead shot only distracted and broke the spell.

Look, even though I have devoted much of my professional life to writing about TV and love the medium, I worship musical theater. It is one of the most inspirational and exalted acts human beings are capable of.

And this I know: Musicals are almost impossible to translate to TV. The energy, the transcendence that you experience in a theater during a great moment in a musical cannot be communicated through a TV screen. You'll never feel the floor shake and throb with the pounding of the dancers' feet onstage when you are sitting in front of a TV screen.

TV does a lot of fabulous things, but that’s one thing it simply cannot do — give you that same tactile, physical, visceral connection to the stage. The technology of the medium and separation created by the screen make it a flatter, colder, more distanced experience.

NBC’s “Hairspray Live” was a nice holiday gift for Baltimore. It had some outstanding moments —  ranging from Hudson and Chenoweth's singing, to almost every second of every major dance number. The choreography was outstanding. The dancing alone made this production one of the network TV highlights of the year.

But there was not three hours of moments worth wading through the sea of NBC promotions for shows like “America’s Got Talent Holiday Spectacular” or "The Wall," plus all those holiday ads.

Three hours is a long time to sustain the energy and illusion of a teen dance show in 1962 Baltimore. But it’s just about right from a commercial standpoint for a network with extra holiday ads to air.

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