Bubbly and infectious, Hairspray the musical also resonates as powerful social history. Seeing this show just after the election of Barack Obama, you can’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.
But the engine that drives this train isn’t its racial politics. Hairspray combines 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. This latest touring show from Broadway Across Canada delivers the goods with unalloyed joy.
Hairspray 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—she’s fat—so how can she hold her own with the cool, sleek girls on Corny’s show?
She’s a can-do kinda gal, our Tracy. 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, Tracy goes for it. And she shall overcome. She competes for Miss Teenage Hairspray and the love of heartthrob Link Larkin, beats out the preening princess, Amber Van Tussle, and succeeds in integrating the TV show’s dance floor. Let the civil right revolution begin.
Superficially, Hairspray looks and sounds like Grease. But this is Grease for adults, a sly, clever 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.”
The performers are terrific. Brooklynn Pulver’s Tracy absolutely radiates positive energy, dances up a storm, and has a great belting Broadway voice. As mother Edna—always played by a man in drag—Jerry O’Boyle is big, brassy, funny, and surprisingly light on his feet. Amber Rees’ Penny, Erin Sullivan’s Amber, and Ariel Tyler Page as Amber’s scheming Cruella De Vil-like mother Velma all turn in strong performances. The male characters are less interesting but Mathew Ragas as dreamboat Link, Drew Davidson as Tracy’s goofy dad, and Sean Zimmerman as Corny do a fine job.
Appropriately, some of the real star turns belong to the African-American performers: the remarkably talented Christian White as Seaweed, who teaches Tracy how to dance, and Angela Birchett as his mother Maybelle. Her stirring gospel-soul number “I Know Where I’ve Been,” backed by the full chorus, lets us see and hear through the silliness how the times they really were a-changin’.