Let it be known that this is the first time in PureDWTS history that my power rankings actually have nothing to do with DWTS 😛 But since some of you (bless your hearts and your desire to listen to me ramble on) requested it on Twitter, here it is – the first-ever non-DWTS edition of the power rankings!
So last night was Hairspray Live! on NBC – Vogue has spoiled all of us by and posted some post-show pix and media over at PDH if you want to check it out. Overall, I liked the production – I didn’t love it, but I think a lot of that had to with the fact that I found myself mentally comparing it to the 2007 movie version of Hairspray quite a bit, and there were parts that I thought the movie did better, and parts that I thought the live show did better. This particular production seemed like it stayed more faithful to the play than the movie, although I did see them borrow from the movie at a few points, too.
So how am I going to parlay the power rankings into a pseudo-quasi review of the show? I’ve decided to look at the 11 main cast members and just analyze them (they’re really the only ones who had enough screen time for me to really judge). I’m going to take into account how the character was handled within the context of the plot, as well as how that particular actor handled the role – and since nobody’s going home like on DWTS, just think of those at the top being the ones that handled it the best, and the ones at the bottom being the ones that fared the worst. So away we go…
1-2.) TIE: Derek Hough as Corny Collins and Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs – I think these two are a prime example of what can be done when you take a relatively secondary character and just play THE SHIT out of it, to the point where you kinda steal the show from the main characters. Surprising almost no one here (but likely quite a few folks who either didn’t know much about him, or people who were skeptical about him), Derek could not have impressed more as Corny – the dancing was there, the singing was there, and the acting was there. I cannot recall another actor playing Corny that has been as athletic as Derek, and that likely helped a lot – Corny’s such a dynamic character, that you need someone that’s able to spin, pose, belt, pull faces, and point & wink without breaking a sweat and without getting winded. That’s all that cross-training and stage experience coming into play 😉 While I actually found a lot of the choreography to be a bit kindergarten-y for D (but probably plenty difficult for everyone else), he was still dancing the crap out of it, and seemed to steal my eye in any scene where they had him doing any sort of dancing. Amber & Link may have been the “stars” of the Corny Collins show, but Corny himself was the one truly worth watching. As for Jennifer – daaaaaaaaamn, girl. I think anyone who is able to bring not one, not two, but THREE cast members to tears while belting out “I Know Where I’ve Been” in a style that would make even Whitney Houston jealous deserves a standing ovation. Maybelle is a character that doesn’t get a ton of screen time in the grand scheme of Hairspray Live! – but I’ll be damned if Jennifer didn’t make the most of every second she got on screen. I actually really liked how she played Maybelle more as a feisty young mother and business woman fighting for a better life for her kids, since most of the actresses that have played her seem to play her as a bit older, and more subdued & wise. All I could think about after the show was how many roles on Broadway she would just SLAY – Big Mamma Morton in Chicago, Teen Angel in Grease, Justice in Rock of Ages, anything in Ain’t Misbehavin’, the list goes on. She’s got real chops when it comes to stage work, and I’d love to see her really establish herself on Broadway. If I had to give one of them the edge over the other, I’d probably say Jennifer because she had a bit more gravitas in her performance – Corny doesn’t have too much serious material to work with. But both were standouts to me in a great way 🙂
3.) Kristin Chenoweth as Velma Von Tussel – This was once instance where I preferred the Hairspray Live! actor to the 2007 movie actor – I liked how Kristin played her a bit more zany and humorous, while I found Michelle Pfeiffer’s Velma to be a bit more…cold and serious. She was also one of the few that seemed to have a good on-screen chemistry with those she was supposed to be playing off of – she did ok with Dove (which I think is more a result of Dove being a bit off her game), but I loved the banter she had with Derek on the Corny set…you can tell those two are good friends off-screen. But chemistry goes a long way, and I actually was very entertained when I watched those two play off each other onscreen. Also liked that she got creative with the vocals – “Miss Baltimore Crabs” had me chuckling. Kristin’s such a seasoned stage pro, though, that I didn’t expect anything else – killed it, and made me laugh 🙂
4.) Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad – To be fair, I feel like Edna is the role in Hairspray that usually stands the greatest likelihood of “stealing the show”, just by virtue of the novelty of it – it’s always played by a male actor in drag (with a LOT of padding), so right off the bat, the audience usually finds him/her hilarious. And Harvey was no exception – from Edna’s first line in that gruff, gravelly voice of his, I was entertained. But god bless Harvey, he makes one pretty hideous woman 😛 The makeup kinda reminded me of one of the makeover challenges on Rupaul’s Drag Race, where the queens are tasked with making over a regular guy into a drag queen in a limited amount of time – but it all just added to the overall campiness of the character, so it worked. And I liked that he played Edna a bit louder and sassier than Travolta did in the 2007 version – I feel like Harvey’s Edna was a lot more “Baltimore”, while Travolta’s was more demure, quiet, and “Midwest”. Also loved the chemistry he had with Martin, and they both seemed to capture well the quirky affection Edna & Wilbur have for each other. Good casting 🙂
5.) Ephraim Sykes as Seaweed Stubbs – I think Ephraim probably fared the best of the newcomers/unknown actors in this production – he’s another one that seems to be a triple threat (singer/dancer/actor) and didn’t struggle with onstage chemistry issues like several of the other newcomers. He seemed to mesh well with Maybelle & Tracy, tried to vibe with Penny (but I blame the lack of spark more on Ariana), and stood out well in the dancing sections. Maybe didn’t stand out for me as much as, say, Lil Inez or Maybelle, but I was pleased nonetheless. No complaints here 🙂
6.) Shahadi Wright Joseph as Lil Inez Stubbs – If you told me to pick one character from the show to give more screen time to, you wouldn’t even have finished your sentence before I said “LIL INEZ!!!” enthusiastically. That little girl was giving me LIFE last night – adorable, energetic, and dancing her little heart out in “You Can’t Stop the Beat” in her little yellow dress. Seriously, go re-watch that number – she is out-dancing most of the adults. So it was kinda disappointing that they opted not to give her more screen time, like they did in the 2007 movie – in that version (spoiler alert), she actually is the one that ends up winning Miss Teen Hairspray when Link pulls her out onto the dance floor during the broadcast, and she gets a ton of phone votes by people impressed by her dance moves. I would have loved to have seen that in this version, if only to see Shahadi dancing more – plus I feel like this version ends just a bit too perfectly for Tracy, who ends up with the boy, the scholarship, the Miss Teen Hairspray title, etc., when all that really mattered to her was integrating the Corny Collins show. Shahadi went above and beyond with the little screen time she was given – I just wish we could have gotten more. But I daresay that girl has got a bright future ahead of her – real star-power, that one.
7.) Martin Short as Wilbur Turnblad – I only have one kinda strange gripe about this one: I almost feel like Martin is too “cool” to play Wilbur. The thing about Wilbur, Edna, & Tracy is that they’re all square pegs – none of them really fit in, except with each other, and their weirdness is what bonds them together and makes them a family. I think that’s why Christopher Walken worked so well as Wilbur in the movie – he was quirky enough that he carried off the offbeat-joke-shop-owner-with-a-daughter-and-a-wife-who-don’t-quite-fit-in-too role off well. Martin Short has just reached a point that he’s so charismatic and at-ease with his humor that he seems a bit too normal to play Wilbur – there just wasn’t enough quirk there for me, although I did love his chemistry with Harvey. I think Ty Burrell would have made a great Wilbur – he’s got enough of that nerdy vibe for me to buy him in that role. But Martin did well, and there’s very little he does that I don’t enjoy.
8.) Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad – It could just be that Tracy is the type of role with very little variation from actress to actress (same overall “look”), but while I don’t think Maddie did BAD, I don’t think she really did anything that really set her apart from other Tracy’s (like Ricki Lake & Nikki Blonsky). Vocals were good, dancing was ok (she looked maybe slightly better than Dove – so generally not terribly confident or at-ease on the floor), acting was alright. I think she tried to establish chemistry with Link, but he was just so damn flat that it all kinda fell apart. I’m left without a whole lot to say about Maddie – she did good, but I don’t think she did outstanding. I will give her props for coming into a huge national production as a relative unknown and doing as well as she did, but when we think back to all the actresses that played Tracy, I’m not sure I’ll remember her name.
9.) Ariana Grande as Penny Pingleton – I will say this: of all the characters that had to sing while doing heavy choreography during the show, Ariana was one of the only two actors who were actually managing to do both without appearing winded or their singing suffering (the other being Derek). I would venture a guess it’s because she’s a highly trained vocalist who has probably gotten quite a bit of instruction on breath control. And yes, she was probably the second-most talented vocalist in the cast, after Jennifer, and she sounded great – had she only had to sing, she would probably be much higher on this list; but she did actually have a pretty substantial speaking role, and the acting we saw was…tepid. I feel like she basically just rehashed this character she did on SNL (which someone on Twitter told me was basically her character from Victorious, too) and seemed too busy being awkward that it actually sabotaged any chemistry she might have had with Seaweed; Ephraim was giving good chemistry and trying to vibe off of her, but it seemed like Ariana got so caught up in being weird that she almost seemed afraid of him. I much preferred Amanda Bynes’ take on Penny in the 2007 movie, where she managed to be awkward and dowdy while still having a good, flirtatious chemistry with Seaweed. She’s an ok dancer, but if I were her, I’d stick to singing for now, and leave the acting and dancing to someone else.
10.) Dove Cameron as Amber Von Tussel – I had never heard of Dove prior to last night, and if someone hadn’t told me otherwise on Twitter, I would have guessed she was was primarily a singer that had little to no experience with acting or dancing, because she didn’t seem particularly confident in either one of those skills during the production. Not much in the way of varying facial expressions, and seemed to be doing the dance moves pretty cautiously and timidly. Her interactions with other characters seemed a bit wooden, too – Kristin and Maddie were giving her plenty to work with, and Dove only seemed to kinda engage. Someone on Twitter mentioned that she may have been really nervous, because she’s usually quite a good performer, so I’m not sure what the deal was – she’s a very pretty girl, and she actually sounded great when singing (especially during “Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now”) but beyond that, I didn’t find anything about her performance to be remarkable. Maybe she just needs to get used to live performances?
11.) Garrett Clayton as Link Larkin – Honest to god, I cannot think of a single memorable Link moment from last night’s show. Perhaps it’s a combo of kinda robotic acting and a bit less of a front-and-center role than in the movie, but I almost feel like Link just got reduced to a stock character in this iteration of the musical – he was just there to kinda fill in the space of the dreamy male love interest for the female protagonist, and that’s about it. In the 2007 version of the movie (where Zac Efron played him), I feel like they at least made an effort to give Link more of his own identity – he was trying to become a rock star and had more performance numbers, you see him change his thinking about segregation, he makes a big move at the Miss Hairspray pageant that makes a statement, etc. In this version…he just seems to be following either Amber or Tracy around like a lost puppy, and there’s only a passing mention about him trying to get his “big break” on the Corny Collins Show. So to be fair – Garrett may not have had a ton of material to work with, but I found his acting to be unremarkable and kinda one-note. He just kinda seemed to be going through the motions, and didn’t really do anything to make the role his own. And I’m not sure he could have had any less chemistry with Maddie if he tried – they felt more like two people on a mismatched blind date than teenagers in love. Just…something really off about their vibe together. I feel really bad saying that, considering they’re the two main characters, but I would argue that they had more screen time than the rest of the cast in order to establish chemistry…and they just couldn’t do it.
Other random thoughts about the show that don’t really fit anywhere else:
*Thinking through the celebrity cameos, I completely forgot about Rosie O’Donnell – probably because casting her as the slightly-butch gym teacher just seemed like wayyyy too much of a gimme. I would have rather had Ricki Lake play that role, instead of throwing a wig on her and shoving her in the background of one of the musical numbers to be forgotten. Seeing her scold Tracy for her too-high hair could have been delightfully ironic 😉 Sean Hayes as Mr. Pinky? Didn’t even recognize him until 5 minutes after “Welcome to the 60’s” ended and it dawned on me. Would have rather seen Anderson Cooper play that one.
*Seemed like they were kinda rushing the curtain call and ended the show 5 minutes early…why? I have no idea, but it did make the ending feel a tad abrupt.
*The thing that has always bugged me about the original Hairspray script is the way that Penny’s mom has a sudden about-face in the finale about her daughter dating a “colored boy” and is suddenly thrilled to bits about it, after the very thought of such a thing nearly gives her the vapors earlier in the script. While it’s a lovely (idealistic) notion to think of a family member letting go of a long-held prejudice simply because they see a loved one happy, it’s not realistic at all – I think that anyone that has grown up with a racist in their family can tell you that those tendencies don’t just change on a whim. I think the 2007 movie handled it more realistically – Penny’s mom sees her on TV, kissing Seaweed, and falls out of her chair in shock…and that’s it. Better to leave it at that than either try to claim she suddenly came to accept it gracefully, or showing her dragging Penny home by her pigtails to beat her with a bible.
*Seemed like there were a few issues with the orchestra drowning out the vocals, particularly in “You Can’t Stop the Beat” and whatever the song was that Jennifer & Ariana sang during the curtain call. I’m told that this was also an issue people noticed with Grease Live…maybe one of the caveats in filming on a huge back lot that has both indoor and outdoor sets? Hard to adjust orchestra volume?
So those are my thoughts…what are yours? Did you enjoy the show? Did you have a favorite character? What would you have done differently? Let’s hear it! 🙂