Hairspray! the musical was at Overture Center until last Sunday. I went to its opening night last Wednesday the 23rd and witnessed its brilliant, bopping, beauty.
Set in Baltimore in the early 1960’s, the story follows high schooler Tracy Turnblad, who is a “plus-sized” teen with a best friend named Penny. Tracy has an intense love for Baltimore’s Corny Collin’s TV dancing show, but after auditioning and getting rejected, Tracy meets a friendly group of dancing Black teens. Using the leader, Seaweed’s, moves to get on the show Tracy attempts to integrate the show, to the displeasure of the producer – Velma Von Tussle, while also pursuing a romance with the lead boy Link Larken. With support from Seaweed’s and her own family, Tracy conducts a dancing protest of the show. All get thrown in jail – that’s the end of the 75 minute act 1. In the second act, Tracy’s father pays the bond of all the locked up gals while Link later breaks Tracy out of solitary confinement. All eventually rally together and push to integrate the show during the nationally broadcast dance competition between Tracy and her rival Amber Von Tussle. Tracy and co. manage to beat the nepotic duo and all ends happily ever after.
In between all that are side show “I want” songs from Tracy, Link, the Von Tussles, and intense gospel reveries from Motormouth, Seaweed’s mom. The plot moves along at a swift pace for such a long show. Mostly dwelling on charming relationship songs between Tracy/Link, Penny/Seaweed, and others.
Hairspray fits into a habit of American History musical pastiche. It was originally written by king-of-camp John Waters as a comedy film in the late eighties, and later turned into a Broadway musical in 2002. The end result is a show that has design hallmarks and historical content, but the bare minimum of both. Hairspray certainly looks as if it is set in 1962, but without the help of detail and specificity in its design it ends up impact-less.
The shortcomings of the set design are certainly understandable. After all, these shows have practical concerns that force them to drive down costs. Touring Broadway shows are designed to compress their stock in order to minimize the amount of trucks needed to transport it to the next town. This means that a touring version of a show will never be quite as elaborate and rich as its On-Broadway cousin. Therefore, Hairspray contains numerous small roll-on sets that never fulfill a rich dramatic purpose.
I enjoyed seeing what the production DID achieve given these restrictions. Of particular note are the “practical” lighting fixtures. The wireless control of these battery powered lights added to the action on stage. Corny Collin’s podium had chasing-style marquee lights that responded to the music and choreography of the actors. Also, the TV in Tracy Turnblad’s house lit up the actresses faces in a beautiful, flickering light that made me excited for the corny show as they were.
The energetic acting was incredible. Every song is uplifting and spirited. The actors’ enthusiasm is infectious, even if it boils over into camp. This was especially true for Andrew Levitt’s drag performance of Edna Turnblad. Sitting in the theater, I thought of just how much stamina is required to perform this non-stop show.
Dancers are constantly moving, though sometimes it felt like they did this only to keep things looking busy. The choreography was active but lacked motivation.
The actors sang their hearts out, but often their voices paled as they were broadcast from the sound system. The mixing in this show was palatable but challenging to listen to. Anytime the ensemble cast joined in behind the principal actors, the principals were drowned out. This meant that the only time to enjoy Hairspray’s comedic lyrics was when they peaked out from behind the chorus, such as in a solo number. I also noticed a severe lack of dynamic range. Of course, having everyone’s voice be equally loud makes sure the audience can hear the lines, but the constant level of volume meant that the show became fatiguing after a few numbers.
Supporting the cast was a masterful band. Their comedic timing and connecting with the actors was palpable and exciting. The band jumped from gospel, rock, big-band, and jazz, to fit the settings. They were truly the heart of the show.
Hairspray is not a musical for a person who has let cynicism seep into their bones. The story may be as worn as a shag rug, but if you step back at least it still has a pretty pattern. The uplifting beats and situational comedy made the show a charmer with an air of novelty.
Reviewing for W-O-R-T News, I’m Heron Splinter.