You can’t stop the beat with ‘Hair­spray Live!’ show

The Washington Times Daily - - LIFE - BY LYNN ELBER

UNIVER­SAL CITY, CALIF. | In the steadily es­ca­lat­ing bat­tle of the TV mu­si­cals, NBC’s “Hair­spray Live!” is the most am­bi­tious con­tender yet.

It’s got a deep bench of stars, in­clud­ing Kristin Chenoweth, Jen­nifer Hudson, Ari­ana Grande and Martin Short. It boasts strong themes of racial equal­ity, tol­er­ance and self-ac­cep­tance.

And it has the out­sized, joy­ful tal­ents of Harvey Fier­stein as writer and actor, repris­ing his Tony Award-win­ning role as Edna Turn­blad.

Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Neil Meron also counts the TV mu­si­cal’s tim­ing as a bonus, call­ing it im­pec­ca­ble de­spite its 1960s set­ting and roots in John Wa­ters’ 1988 film and, more di­rectly, in the 2002-2009 Broad­way mu­si­cal with Mr. Fier­stein.

“Peo­ple al­ready were ex­cited about it, but af­ter the elec­tion they were say­ing, ‘Boy, do we need this now,’ ” Mr. Meron said re­cently on a Univer­sal Stu­dios set as the cast re­hearsed “I Can Hear the Bells” for Wed­nes­day’s tele­cast (8 p.m.-11 p.m. EST).

With the coun­try in a “di­vi­sive place,” he said, view­ers are ea­ger for en­ter­tain­ment “that can be re­ally heal­ing.”

“Hair­spray Live!” is set in 1962 Bal­ti­more, where “The Corny Collins Show” is TV’s hot dance pro­gram and the fo­cus of teen Tracy Turn­blad’s dreams. When she’s cho­sen to per­form and gains in­stant celebrity, the plus-sized dy­namo uses it to fight the show’s whites-only rule.

Tracy is played by Mad­die Bail­lio, 20, of League City, Texas, a col­lege stu­dent plucked from more than 1,300 hope­fuls in an open-casting call for her first pro­fes­sional role. Mr. Short plays hus­band to Mr. Fier­stein’s sup­port­ive wife and mother.

The cast in­cludes Derek Hough as Collins; Miss Grande as Tracy’s pal Penny; Miss Hudson as record-store owner Mo­tor­mouth May­belle; Ephraim Sykes as her son, Sea­weed; Miss Chenoweth and Dove Cameron as mean mom-daugh­ter duo Velma and Am­ber Von Tus­sle; and Gar­rett Clay­ton as Link, Tracy’s squeeze.

Two for­mer “Hair­spray” Tra­cys, Ricki Lake (the movie) and Marissa Jaret Wi­nokur (the play), are set for cameo ap­pear­ances.

Among the catchy songs sure to rat­tle around in view­ers’ brains for days — “Good Morn­ing Bal­ti­more” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

The pro­duc­tion is big (55 cast mem­bers, 600 cos­tumes, 18 sets) and sprawl­ing, de­signed to shift be­tween the con­fines of two Univer­sal Stu­dios sound­stages and a va­ri­ety of back­lot lo­ca­tions. It’s also got an ele­ment of risk, fol­low­ing other re­cent mu­si­cals that aired live to ramp up the ex­cite­ment fac­tor (and keep view­ers tun­ing into broad­cast net­works and com­mer­cials).

The TV mu­si­cal com­pe­ti­tion is both in­tra- and in­ter­mu­ral: The bar for “Hair­spray Live!” was set at vary­ing heights by NBC’s “Sound of Mu­sic,” “Peter Pan” and “The Wiz” broad­casts. “The Wiz” aired live in 2015, as did this year’s “Grease” on com­peti­tor Fox, and “Hair­spray” plucked its pair of di­rec­tors, Kenny Leon and Alex Rudzin­ski, from those re­spec­tive tele­casts. Jerry Mitchell, who chore­ographed the Broad­way mu­si­cal, also is aboard.

The “Hair­spray” pro­duc­ers have “cer­tainly upped the ante,” said Mr. Hough. “The peo­ple who are part of this, in­clud­ing some who worked on ‘Grease’ as well, they want to try to top them­selves.”

Ex­actly, said Mr. Meron, who is pro­duc­ing “Hair­spray Live!” with Craig Zadan. The part­ners also pro­duced the 2007 movie ver­sion of the stage mu­si­cal, with Nikki Blon­sky as Tracy and John Tra­volta as Edna.

While “Grease” made cre­ative use of back­lot lo­ca­tions, Mr. Meron said the “Hair­spray” plan is to spend more of the show, about 40 per­cent, out­doors on the lot.

That will in­clude mun­dane fa­cades trans­formed into a col­or­ful Bal­ti­more down­town, one that hap­pens to be in sight of the clock tower fea­tured in “Back to the Fu­ture.” Neon signs ad­ver­tise busi­nesses in­clud­ing Wa­ters Plumb­ing, a bow to the story’s free-think­ing orig­i­na­tor, and Di­vine Pet Food. That hon­ors the orig­i­nal film’s Edna, the late Di­vine (Har­ris Glenn Mil­stead), who set the tem­plate for a male to own the role.

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