Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan; Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Derived from a movie by John Waters (New Line Cinema)
Directed by Matt Lenz
Produced by NETworks Presentations, LLC at the Warner Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Does life hold a role for the unlovely and the despised? Are there still dreams to be had when you’re too plump to go to the prom; or when your hopes and ambitions lie like ashes amidst the heaps of laundry you’ve taken in to help pay the mortgage?
If you ask Hairspray – and hundreds of people did at the old dowager Warner Theatre last night – the answer is yes. The mission, should we choose to accept it, is to explode with joy like a trick from the Har-de-Har Hut joke shop, blow through the restrictions laid down by the sour and the repressed, love ourselves, and dance like – gasp! – Negroes! until there’s no more music left.
Hairspray the Musical is essentially a simplified version of the old John Waters movie – the one with Rikki Lake and the incomparable Divine – juiced up with a ton of infectious music. We are in Baltimore, and it is 1962. Tubby live-wire Tracy Turnblad (Brooklynn Pulver) awakens, as she does every morning, her teen-aged heart overflowing with music and the itch to move her body to it. She especially itches to move her body on the Corny Collins show, a televised dance party for young people. Although her mountainous mother Edna (Greg London), knowing the scorn and laughter that greets women of size in public, would have it otherwise, Trudy auditions for, and eventually wins, a role on the show.
She wins the role, and the professional attention of ringmaster Corny (Jarret Mallon) in part because of the smooth dance moves she has picked up in detention from Seaweed J. Stubbs (Donell James Foreman). Seaweed is African-American, as are all the denizens of detention save Tracy (apparently her big hair is a disciplinary offense). She also wins the attention of the show’s producer, the execrable Velma Von Tussle (Jacqueline Grabois). Velma hates Tracy not only because she might defeat Velma’s stuck-up daughter Amber (Katie Donohue) in a dance-and-popularity contest (and win the heart of Amber’s charismatic boyfriend Link (Constantine Rousouli)) but because of Tracy’s avowed ambition to integrate the Corny show. (Up to this point, there has only been an insulting “Negro Day” once a month.)
It takes demonstrations, a jailbreak, and a whole lot of dancin’, but all of Tracy’s dreams come true, and in the process she makes dreams come true for a lot of other people – her mother, Link, Seaweed, his mother (Angela Birchett), who had previously hosted “Negro Day”, and Tracy’s best friend Penny (Sharon Malane), who has fallen for Seaweed like a ton of bricks and who announces, late in the second Act, that she has become “a checkerboard girl”. Tracy, in a perverse way, has even made Velma’s dream come true: the fulminating producer finds herself with the one promotion she never expected, or wanted, to have.
You wouldn’t think something that sounds this silly could be moving, but Hairspray is, because it shows love like a wildfire engulfing all restrictions on the human spirit. Edna Turnblad may be a 300 pound mama, but to her bite-size husband Wilbur (Dan Ferretti) she is the very fountain of lust, and his desire for her is so palpable that it seems at any moment that his head will unscrew and streamers will burst out of his neck, just as they burst out of the many ridiculous devices at his Har-de-Har Hut.
Link could have any girl at the school – indeed, the musical implies, any girl in Baltimore – but the one he wants is Tracy, whose sweetness, courage and integrity stir his soul, and his body, more than Amber’s conventional beauty. On the other hand, the three characters who utter the recurring line “I’m so lonely” – a butch gym teacher, a sadistic prison guard, and Penny’s ultrarepressed mother – are all played by the same actor, the impressively lovely Arjana Ardis.
I suppose that the production which won eight Tony Awards in 2003, or the one that swept the Olivier awards this year on London’s West End, might have been better than this one. It’s hard to imagine how, though. Pulver is magnificent as Tracy – a great mass of fast-twitch muscles supporting a supple and powerful voice; she wears her heart on her sleeve and leads with it at every turn. Grabois, who is new to the cast, is an excellent villain. She resists the temptation to camp up the role, but still finds plenty of room for nasty fun. You will have to have fast eyes to follow Foreman’s Seaweed, who flows from one side of the stage to the other as gracefully as a ghost. Malane shines in the best friend role, and I particularly liked Ferretti as Wilbur. He is not on stage much, but when he is, he is so full of infectious vinegar that it is like having an extra story line to figure out.
A word about London. The veteran actor from South Carolina was a late substitute (the role is usually played by Jerry O’Boyle) but, after a slow start, he was terrific. Edna Turnblad is an extraordinarily difficulty role (you may have noticed how Travolta struggled with it in the movie) but London managed to draw out every iota of sweetness and steel that Edna must show for the production to succeed.
Costumes (William Ivey Long), choreography (Jerry Mitchell, recreated by Danny James Austin), authentic-Baltimore set (David Rockwell) – everything was top-flight. Hairspray is what every musical should be: better than real life.
— John Waters took his idea for the show from an actual Baltimore television show. To learn what really happened to The Buddy Deane Show, follow this link.
Running Time: 2:30 including one intermission.
Where: Warner Theatre, 513 13th Street NW, Washington, D.C.
When: Hairspray closes this weekend. Through Sunday, April 20 only. All evening shows at 8 except Sunday’s, which is at 6.30. There is a Saturday matinee at 2 and a Sunday matinee at 1.
Tickets: $38.50-$75.00: available at the website. , or at the Warner Theatre Box Office.