The beat thundered, the ocean motioned and “Hairspray Live!” exploded in a Technicolor whirl.
The ever-relevant movie-turned-Broadway-show-turned-movie-turned-live-TV-production directed by Kenny Leon and zoomed in live from Universal Studios in Los Angeles Wednesday night on NBC, marked another triumph for the Tony-winning artistic director of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company.
The marquee cast incorporated pop stars – Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson – Broadway pros – Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Ephraim Sykes – a bright newcomer in the lead role (Maddie Baillio as Tracy Turnblad) and a horde of other big names including Derek Hough, Andrea Martin and Martin Short.
Leon’s months of directorial work culminated in a dazzling production that utilized 13 cameras on multiple sets. About 40 percent of “Hairspray Live!” was shot outside on the Universal Studios lot, an unprecedented amount for one of these live theatrical events.
The three-hour performance endured the occasional dropped sound and camera twitch, but the majority of “Hairspray Live!” unfolded flawlessly (live direction was handled by Alex Rudzinski). The breathless hosting from Darren Criss was more of a distraction than a necessity, but perhaps producers felt the show needed fourth wall interaction.
Here are five things we learned while watching the NBC production.
1.Derek Hough is a triple threat. The “Dancing with the Stars” favorite exhibited not only his gliding hips (fun fact, producers said this was the first time they’ve had a Corny Collins who could actually dance), but a personable vibe and a surprisingly strong singing voice. The song “Ladies Choice,” created for the 2007 film adaptation for the character of Link (played here by Garrett Clayton), was instead given to Hough - and he delivered.
2. During one day of rehearsals last month , Kristin Chenoweth (Velma Von Tussle) practiced that baton bit during “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” at least three dozen times. I can’t even fathom how many additional times she tossed that thing since then. Perfectionism is clearly in her nature. She also hit those same crazy notes every time – albeit quietly – proving that the Broadway vet’s four-octave voice is somewhat superhuman.
3.Harvey Fierstein is a national treasure.
4.This isn’t the last we’ve seen of Maddie Baillio. Though this is the first major role for the student at Marymount Manhattan College, who saw an audition call on Facebook and nabbed the role of Tracy Turnblad over more than 1,000 other hopefuls, Baillio repeatedly demonstrated a natural charm and a sweet singing voice. Bet it won’t be long until she’s on Broadway
5.There is a reason Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar. As Motormouth Maybelle, she slayed. At rehearsal in November, producer Craig Zadan foreshadowed Motormouth’s signature number, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” “When you hear Jennifer Hudson do that number live, you will faint. Because it’s unreal. Just unreal.” He wasn’t kidding. But we’re glad no fainting ensued because otherwise we would have missed her sterling performance.