The Hennepin Theatre Trust starts 2023 out with a winner in Hairspray. A show packed with upbeat songs, humor, fantastic dance moves, and a message about doing the right thing. Hairspray the Broadway musical is celebrating its 20th Anniversary with this brand new touring production that reunites much of the original Broadway creative team. I’ve never seen a live production but familiar with the original John Water’s film on which the musical is based, and also seen the movie version of the musical. I enjoyed both film versions, though it has been years since I’ve seen either of them, I feel safe in saying this was my favorite experience with the material. I tend to gravitate to the popular music of the late 1950’s and 1960’s and Hairspray’s songs lean heavily into the style of that period. Filled with an exaggerated take on the looks and sounds of 1962 America, it’s a technicolor fantasy of a bygone time, but one that also addresses the civil rights movement. One is reminded of Artistry’s production last year of Memphis for another take on this time and subject matter. I really liked Memphis, but I think Hairspray is more fun, it’s probably the influence of the The Pope of Trash himself John Waters. Hints of Waters’ sensibilities and his unique view of his beloved Baltimore remain in this translation of his film to a musical, and those moments are wonderful little winks at where this all began.
Hairspray follows Tracy Turnblad who dreams of being one of the dancers on the Corny Collins Show a local TV show that features kids dancing to the latest pop chart songs. When an opening on the show becomes available, Tracy skips school with her friend Penny in order to audition, against her mother Edna’s wishes. The resident Teen Diva Amber Von Tussle who is the daughter of the shows producer Velma Von Tussle, ridicules Tracy over her weight and she’s refused the chance to audition. Back in school during detention she strikes up a friendship with Seaweed, a black student and son of Motormouth Maybelle who hosts the “Negro Day” on The Corny Collins Show, bond over dance moves. When Corny Collins comes to their high school for the Sophomore Hop, Tracy wows him with the dance moves she’s learned from Seaweed and he awards her a spot on his show. After her first broadcast, not only has she fallen in love with Link Larkin the resident teen heartthrob and Amber’s boyfriend, but she becomes a local celebrity. Tracy is content to be a dancer on the show but she also wants to integrate the broadcast so that the black and white kids can all dance together. Her success leads her mother to reassess whether or not that’s a place for people of her and Tracy’s size out in the world. They deal with some fairly heavy issues, race, being marginalized due to weight, self esteem, corruption, hell nearly every woman in it winds up behind bars at one point, but they do it with humor and optimism. It’s Tracy’s heart that never stops fighting for what is right that changes everyone around her.
The cast lead by Niki Metcalf as Tracy Turnblad is traditional, the role Edna Turnblad is played by a man in drag, in this case Andrew Levitt also known by his drag queen name Nina West, are both terrific. Levitt camps it up wonderfully especially in a showstopper of a number “(You’re) Timeless to Me” a duet with Ralph Prentice Daniel as her husband Wilbur. Metcalf is impressive as Tracy, not only does she sing well, but her footwork lives up to the characters ability to win a spot on the TV show. She also wonderfully projects the positive spirit and beliefs her character has that, along with her ceaseless energy, really are the heart of the play. Others of note are Charlie Bryant III as Seaweed whos dance moves have a life of their own and Emery Henderson who plays Tracy’s best friend Penny who falls in love with Seaweed. Henderson gets a lot of great comic relief moments along with Emmanuelle Zeesman who plays her mother Prudy. Nick Cortazzo is perfectly cast as the impossibly dreamy Link Larkin, he looks the part, sounds the part, and we believe him when he falls in love with Tracy. There was only one performance that I had issues with, *Melanie Puente Ervin as Motormouth Maybelle seemed to fall short in the acting category, seeming to walk around on stage saying her lines without much in the way of inflection or emotion, fortunately her singing voice was undoubtedly the best of the company and it was worth the wooden line delivery to hear her belt out “I Know Where I’ve Been”.
As mentioned, this new touring production brought back many of the original Broadways productions team. Back are director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell along with scenic designer David Rockwell and costume designer William Ivey Long. It all works wonderfully well together giving the entire production this unified feel. The sets and costumes share this glossy unreal feel to them, that come to think of it, is also present in the wigs the performers wear. The only technical flaw I observed was a balance issue between the vocals and the musicians. Several of the actors lyrics were getting lost to the music, but it seemed to be an issue they corrected for over the course of the evening, because beyond the first couple of songs it ceased to be an issue.
If you are looking for a fun night at the theater with a positive message and upbeat music don’t wait for The Prom to open next month at Chanhassen Dinner Theaters get yourself primed for that this month with Hairspray. Hairspray runs through January 15th at the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Minneapolis, for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/hairspray-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-mn-2022/.
*This review has been updated to reflect that the role of Motormouth Maybelle was played by Melanie Puente Ervin not Sandie Lee as originally stated. This helps to explain the somewhat wooden delivery of the character’s dialogue.
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