Anyone who saw the original movie Hairspray by John Waters, and had a musical theatre background could have called the evolution of this work becoming a Broadway musical but now it’s come into our homes in a new format and unfortunately, Hairspray is as flat as an Aqua Net doo that got wet.
Here’s the thing, the original movie was arguably the most mainstream of all of John Waters movies (however I don’t know that’s what he intended at the time). It had everything from Divine as Edna, Ruth Brown as Motormouth Maybelle and even Pia Zadora in a small role. Yes, it had everything for many of us and it had a real message about segregation. If you watch the original today, you won’t be disappointed and for this musical theatre gay, I have to say the original (even without snappy songs sung by its characters) is still the best incarnation of this story.
The Broadway musical made the whole thing fluffier than the hard hitting racial theme of the original film, the 2007 movie was a big miss with Miss Travolta trying to play Edna and this new television adaptation appears to have tried to right some wrongs of it’s predecessor (but there’s still a lot wrong with it).
The original Broadway book writer and Edna, Harvey Fierstein returns as Edna and as the writer of the teleplay. His performance is the big win of this production, his heartfelt portrayal of Edna brings out a reminiscence of the amazing performance by Divine but it’s still all his own. I also attribute him with making Martin Short, as Edna’s husband, more likeable than in any other performance I’ve seen him do in movies, television or stage. The two of them bring a realness that makes them stand out in this production for good and bad reasons.
The problem with this production appears to be in the hands of its co-directors, Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzinski who may have been directing two different productions and maybe that’s what caused the television performance to seem so schizophrenic.
Problem one is most of the casting. None of the “kids” in this version are charismatic enough to make you care about them and I’m including Derek Hough in this with a performance that seemed more like the directors said, “Just be you and sing the songs, it’ll be fine.” And it is “fine” but it doesn’t draw you into the performance or the story as this character should do for you. In almost all of the cases of the “kids” not sure if it’s the lack of direction or they just can’t act but I certainly didn’t care about any of them. I get that this is not Spring Awakening, this is a big, brassy, Broadway musical so why didn’t the directors? Choosing to not do any sort of real bumped up characterizations becomes a problem with the pace and energy of the production. You must lift the hair (and characterizations) and keep it at that level, then you spray it if you want it to stay UP! This falls flat repeatedly.
Hold onto your pearls queens because both Kristin Chenoweth and Jennifer Hudson are both miscast too. Sure, they can sing the roles and that’s great but what about them being right for the roles? Watch Debbie Harry and Ruth Brown in the original and you’ll be shaking your head at the casting of both Michelle Pfeiffer and Queen Latifah in the movie as well as the current TV two and why they thought they’d repeat the miscasting for this television production. Chenoweth doesn’t reek of regret and evil and Hudson singing about being “big, blonde and beautiful” when she’s not big anymore just seemed stupid. I get it, “stars” bring people in but once you get us there, the star has to take us there. These two did not take us anywhere by no fault of their own other than accepting the roles as they’re just not right for these roles.
Believe it or not, the “stage” for this musical is too big. The sets swallow the cast and in most cases is too dark (I get it, they filmed it at night on a backlot) but turn the lights on as even “Good Morning, Baltimore” that opens the show feels more like “My Time of Day” from Guys and Dolls (“My time of day, is the dark time. A couple of deals before dawn.”) making the show seem as moody as a teenager for NAR (No Apparent Reason). The sound is uneven and doesn’t allow you to feel as though you’re watching live performances and the choreography by veteran Jerry Mitchell is a “meh” as it doesn’t seem to really represent the time period and feels awkward on both the kids and the “adult” stars doing their star turn version of it in big numbers such as “You Can’t Stop The Beat.”
The valiant effort award goes to poor Darren Criss, breaking the fourth wall into commercial breaks, helpless to make any sense of why he was there, being ignored as he’s shouting the cast’s real names at them while they ran to the next part of the soundstage for their next number and poorly conceived break aways to cities across the country. I will say, the live commercials were one of the things that really worked in this production and were the part that was the most fun.
The biggest problem this musical has is that it was 3 hours and no one wants to watch a fluffy musical for 3 hours unless it’s delightful. This was more delight-less. They miss the most important piece, fast is funny and nothing makes you laugh out loud in this production largely because it plods along at a very slow clip clop. In addition to all of the above, the book seems to go careening out of whack at the end where the cast and the writers appear to have just gotten tired. The end simply doesn’t make sense. The resolution seems to be the cast just looking at one another, trying to figure out what happened, giving up like us and then just singing more of “You Can’t Stop The Beat” followed by a gratuitous number by Jennifer Hudson and Ariana Grande that no one cared about or made any sense.
And yet the music is good, the numbers are dance recital good and it makes you feel good that as John Waters said about the original Broadway production, (I’m paraphrasing) he’s glad high schools all over America will be doing this show with a drag queen as its star. So if you enjoyed it, great but if you’re like me you’re thinking it could have been a lot better and you’re already cringing thinking about J Lo as Rosie in Bye, Bye Birdie next year!