— Jennie Neumann and Jay Brazeau in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Hairspray. Photo by Emily Cooper.
To call the Arts Club’s Hairspray a killer show might be to use an unfortunate metaphor, given Jay Brazeau’s apparent near-death experience in one of the previews on the Stanley stage. (Brazeau’s reported stroke was actually a case of high blood pressure and His Jayness is reportedly well enough to return to the role of Edna Turnblad, the Double Plus size mother, any day now.) But really, the show is a killer. Bill Millerd’s production of this clever, tuneful, slyly subversive musical is as good as anything you’d see on Broadway. It takes musical theatre in Vancouver to a whole new level.
I’m going to plagiarize myself and rephrase some of the things I said about Hairspray, the musical, when a touring production came to town in November 2008.
Seeing it then, just after the election of Barack Obama, you couldn’t help realizing that the movement that made him President really began with early ‘60s rhythm and blues, the moment white kids started dancing to black music. Bubbly and infectious, Hairspray manages to resonate as powerful social history while combining the good-natured campiness of John Waters’ 1988 movie with catchy tunes, high-energy dancing, a classic underdog plot, and a dozen interesting (if cartoonish) characters. The Arts Club production sends its audience leaping to their feet with the kind of delirious enthusiasm of Canucks fans reaching for the Cup.
Hairspray (a kind of prequel to Glee) tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a Baltimore teenager in 1962 who wants desperately to be a dancer on Corny Collins’ after-school TV show, a local American Bandstand. But she’s hefty, plus-sized, so how can she hold her own with the cool, sleek girls on Corny’s show? A can-do kinda gal, Tracy is encouraged by her oversized mother, joke-shop-owning father, and dorky friend Penny, and inspired by the dancing of the black kids at her school. And she shall overcome. She competes for Miss Teenage Hairspray and the love of heartthrob Link Larkin, beats out the preening princess, Amber Von Tussle, and succeeds in integrating the TV show’s dance floor. Let the civil rights revolution begin!
Like The Graduate, another recent Arts Club show about the same era in American history, Hairspray serves as a barometer of the changing social and sexual attitudes of that historical moment when the conservative 1950s start to become the radical 1960s. As three teen daughters sing to their mothers, “If I have a baby don’t have a cow, Because I’m a big girl now.”
Bill Millerd’s production is simply terrific, knit together by Alison Green’s many extravagant costumes, Musical Director Ken Cormier’s tight six-piece orchestra, and Val Easton’s infectiously energetic choreography. The 21 exceptional performances begin with Jennie Neumann’s incandescent Tracy and Robyn Wallis’ hilarious Penny. The African American characters take over in the second act, led by J. Cameron Barnett’s rubber-legged Seaweed and Alana Hibbert’s Maybelle, Seaweed’s mother, whose Aretha-like rendition of the gospel anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been” brings down the house.
The supporting cast is consistently excellent, led by Matt Palmer’s corny Corny, Anna Kuman’s bitch-princess Amber and Cailin Stadnyk as her bitch-queen mother Velma, Adam Charles as Link and Kimberley Gelera as Little Inez.
Special mention has to go to Andy Toth, who replaced Jay Brazeau as Edna (Tracy’s Mom in a fatsuit), and opened the show with only a few days’ rehearsal. Edna is an oversized, over-the-top character, originally played by John Waters’ drag queen star Divine. Toth underplays her—to the extent that’s possible—with elegant poignancy, and earns the audience’s undying love. Edna’s duet with husband Wilbur (the delightful Laurie Murdoch), “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” is another audience favourite and another highlight of a show packed with them.