Hairspray is the ultimate feel-good musical because it celebrates what life would be like if we were as wonderful as we could be, instead of being our present self-involved and ungenerous selves. And how would it be, according to the vigorous and joyous production now being staged at Toby’s Columbia?
For one thing, we would be moved by the beauty of each other’s souls, rather than the superficial (and, sadly, temporary) excellence of bodies. For another, we would welcome those who are different than us, instead of confining them to Negro Day. For a third, we would fearlessly follow our dreams in the face of our doubts.
For a fourth, there’d be a whole lotta dancin’.
Hairspray is the story of the indomitable Tracy Turnblad (Celia Blitzer), a young woman of size whose effervescent personality and impressive big hair more than counterbalance a body a little more zaftig than her times and culture countenance. It is 1962, and Tracy’s great dream is to appear on The Corny Collins Show, a televised teenage dance party featuring Collins (Jeffrey Shankle) and a coterie of high-school hip-swivelers. When there is a vacancy on the show she resolves to audition, though her humongous mother Edna (Lawrence B. Munsey), sad and unwise both, tries to hold her back in the belief that television, like life, has no room for a big girl. But, urged on by her dad Wilbur, the proprietor of the Har-de-Har Hut (David James), and by her best friend Penny (MaryLee Adams), Tracy charges ahead.
Every feel-good musical should have a cartoon-like villain, and Hairspray has two: the despicable Velma Von Tussle (Heather Marie Beck), who produces The Corny Collins Show, and her prissy daughter Amber (Jamie Eacker), who hopes to use the show, and the other performers, to make herself a star crooner. Team Von Tussle does what it can to stop Tracy, and their weapons are pretty formidable, but soon Tracy, with Corny’s heartfelt endorsement, is on the show. Having achieved her goal, Tracy soon announces three more. In ascending order of difficulty, they are (1) to achieve the title of “Miss Teenage Hairspray”, an honor hitherto reserved for Amber; (2) to steal Amber’s boyfriend, the charismatic Link Larkin (David Jennings), and make him her own; and (3) to integrate the Corny Collins Show.
I hope I do not shock you when I say that Tracy succeeds, but the real story in Hairspray is how Edna Turnblad comes to discover her own power, as a woman of size and as a human being. Edna, a woman so conventionally unattractive that she is customarily played by a man (you may have seen the incomparable Divine in the role in the original movie, or the surprisingly effective John Travolta in the movie musical), supplements the Turnblad commonweal at the musical’s outset by taking in laundry while dreaming of someday designing high-end dresses. But years of scorn and ridicule have taught her to think small, and it is the business of Hairspray to reeducate her. It does. Inspired by her daughter’s idealism, Edna becomes a mother bear, taking on Von Tussel scorn, her own anxieties, and eventually the police to make Tracy’s dreams, and her own, come true. By the end of the show, ensconced in a red dress of her own creation so magnificent that it could run for public office by itself (Munsey designed the costumes), she helps lead the newly-integrated Corny Collins cast in a rousing rendition of “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
Munsey, a solidly-built man who frequently plays a conventional male protagonist (most recently, the Bing Crosby role in White Christmas) takes a sort of Harvey Fierstein approach to Edna, and if it strikes you in the first moments of his presence on stage that you are watching a man wearing a dress and a wig, you will probably not be alone. But – and this is a great secret of effective acting – he stayed with his interpretation persistently, and so eventually we began to accept it. By the time “You Can’t Stop the Beat” rolled around, I fully bought that I was watching a woman, albeit one who could break me in half like a toothpick.
The other performances are all swell, and some are terrific. John Waters didn’t put a great deal of complexity into most of his characters, and book writers Mark O’Connell and Thomas Meehan wisely do not mess with his strategy. Velma is – a manipulative bigot. Amanda is – a self-indulgent snot. Corny is – a progressive, self-confident entrepreneur. The actors all find their characters’ centers and go to town.
Where they really distinguish themselves, then, is in their singing and dancing. The dancing part is mostly taken care of, among others, by Frank Anthony as Seaweed J. Stubbs, a disciplined bundle of fast-twitch nerves whom Tracy meets in detention (she’s landed there because of her big hair). Seaweed is a young black man, and he, his sister little Inez (the excellent Melissa Victor) and their buds (Mary Searcy, Jessica Coleman, Ashleigh King, Scean A. Flowers and Bryan Daniels), introduce Tracy to a style of dancing she has never seen before. Tracy realizes that the Corny show needs to integrate its dance floor, and right quick. (To this point, black dancers are given a separate but unequal, once-a-month “Negro Day”.) Anthony has the dancing chops to be the revolutionary Seaweed, a loose-limbed ghost of a man who at certain moments appears to become the music, floating over the dance floor like an f-sharp above middle c.
As for the singing, who could be better than Jesaira Glover as Seaweed’s mom, Motormouth Maybelle? Motormouth is the DJ on Corny’s “Negro Day”, and her unique combination of rock, soul and gospel foreshadows the history of music in the decade to come. Glover is fully equal to Maybelle’s formidable responsibility, and her song “I Know Where I’ve Been” is probably the strongest in the show.
Director Toby Orenstein and Musical Director Brant Challacombe keep the large cast and 18-member orchestra moving. There are no wasted moments but enough are lovingly developed to make the production memorable. Among my favorites: the response of Penny’s snootyfaced mom (Debra Buonaccorsi) when she discovers that her daughter has fallen in love with Seaweed. I won’t tell you what it is; you’ll have to see it.
But the thing that bathes Hairspray in a mist of sweetness is something that you don’t see in musicals very often – Wilbur Turnblad’s feelings for his enormous wife. James makes them plain for us. It is more than uxorious affection; it is more than familial bonding; it is blessed lust. We see a middle-aged, three-hundred pound woman with self-esteem issues, but to Wilbur – a slight man, until properly viewed – she is Salome and Cleopatra, Harlow and Bardot, Madonna and Jolie. He longs to fall upon her, as a retired supermodel longs to fall upon a porterhouse. He is in love with her soul, as Link comes to love the soul of Tracy, and we come to love the soul of Hairspray.
Based on a screenplay by John Waters
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Directed by Toby Orenstein
Musical Direction by Brant Challacombe
Choreographed by Mark Minnick
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Hairspray runs thru August 1, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
Mark Beachy . Examiner.com