Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Hairspray is based on the 1988 film of the same name by eccentric writer and director John Waters. As a teenager in Baltimore in 1962, Tracy Turnblad's one wish is to dance on the TV program "The Corny Collins Show." Despite having a dress size that matches her big hairdo, the spunky heroine earns her way onto the show and manages to capture the heart of the show's hunk, Link Larkin. With her newfound fame, Tracy becomes a spokesperson for plus-sized girls. She also leads the push to racially integrate the TV program and the rest of city with the help of her unique parents, school chums, and other denizens of Baltimore. The show won eight Tony Awards in 2003.
Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan deservedly won Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical for Hairspray. They wisely took the best of what made the film a cult classic and came up with new ideas to create a story that is timeless (the need to fit in), humorous (without having to rely on vulgarity or cheap laughs), socially significant (tackling prejudice based on both race and body type), romantic, and the perfect balance of reality and camp.
The score by Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics) also garnered a Tony Award. The songs uniformly possess infectiously energizing melodies, skillfully crafted lyrics (often with witty double meanings), and toe-tapping rhythms that are difficult to resist. The numbers wonderfully mirror the musical styles of the period, including old-fashioned rock 'n' roll, rhythm & blues, and gospel, all in a professionally rendered musical theater format. The opening number, "Good Morning Baltimore," splendidly sets the tone of the show, and songs such as "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now", "Welcome to the 60's", "Run and Tell That!", and the glorious quartet "Without Love" continue the celebration of everything that a musical should be. The final song, "You Can't Stop The Beat," is also an ideal way to end the show.
Even with a humorous and timely book, a first-rate score, and other strong elements, bringing this enormous show together into one cohesive unit couldn't have been an easy task. However, Tony Award winning director Jack O'Brien did so with exceptional results, and his work is recreated here by Matt Lenz. O'Brien stages scenes in an enormously effective manner, and his attention to detail is commendable. A tone of excitement is maintained throughout, and both the comedy and the seriousness of the material are communicated to maximum effect without being overly silly or preachy. Jerry Mitchell's choreography, which is exquisite and deftly captures the flavor of the decade, is recreated by Michele Lynch. The vibrancy of the dances in numbers such as "The Nicest Kids in Town," "Run and Tell That!," "The Big Dollhouse" (featuring wonderful background moves by the ensemble), and the finale is contagious. Patrick Hoagland leads a talented pit of musicians playing the well-suited orchestrations by Harold Wheeler.
Andrew Levitt is well-known as drag queen Nina West and appeared on "RuPaul's Drag Race." In Hairspray, he portrays Tracy's mother Edna, and embodies the role with warmth and authenticity. His duet of "Timeless To Me" with Christopher Swan (likewise adorable as Edna's husband Wilbur) is a highlight of the production. However, it is Niki Metcalf as Tracy who really steals the show. Metcalf provides strong vocals and crystal-clear diction (both while singing and in her dialogue) and is an appropriately spunky, lovable, and funny protagonist.
The many supporting players also impress. Sandie Lee (Motormouth Maybelle) brings down the house with her poignant performance of "I Know Where I've Been" and shows off soul and sass. Emery Henderson skillfully portrays Tracy's best friend Penny as an uptight nerd, with many funny moments throughout. As Seaweed, Jamonté D. Bruten is spirited and humorous, and a great dancer. Will Savarese is just right as the clueless hunk Link Larkin, and Kaelee Albritton supplies great singing and the salty attitude apt for the manipulative Amber Von Tussle. As Corny Collins, Billy Dawson is smooth and grounded. Addison Garner deliciously portrays the wicked Velma Von Tussle and shows off some well-honed baton twirling skills. Brianna Kaleen makes the most out of the smaller role of Little Inez. The rest of the ensemble also put forth praiseworthy triple-threat performances.
Hairspray features beautiful design elements. The sets by David Rockwell (slightly smaller in some spots than the Broadway version) are fun, inventive and well-crafted. William Ivey Long's costumes are impeccable as usual, and the exquisitely colorful lighting design by Paul Miller based on Kenneth Posner's original work is visually interesting.
The best word to describe Hairspray is "joyous," as it really does celebrate life is so many ways. The first-rate cast executes the material very well. This is a show that should be frequently on tour, and is a welcome treat to have back.
Hairspray runs through July 3, 2022, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-621-2787 or visit cincinnati.broadway.com. For more information on the tour, visit hairspraytour.com.