Despite talented cast, delightful score, ‘Hairspray’ loses some of its luster in out-of-style reboot
In its final 10 minutes or so, the cast’s enthusiastic shaking and shimmying will invariably have the audience on its feet. If only the rest of “Hairspray” held up as well.
The national tour of “Hairspray” running through Feb. 13 at the CIBC Theatre uses essentially the same staging as the eight-time 2003 Tony Award-winning musical that debuted roughly 19 years ago on Broadway. But while director Matt Lenz and choreographer Michele Lynch used original director/choreographer duo Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell’s work as their template, the reboot comes across as a copy of a copy of a copy. As for the show itself (based on the 1988 movie musical of the same name by John Waters) it hasn’t aged as gracefully as you might think.
Thankfully, the cast’s joyous energy radiates from the stage so powerfully you’ll be tempted to buy what they’re selling, cartoonishly slapdash wigs and all.
When: Through Feb. 13
Where: CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe
Tickets: $33 - $106
Run-time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission
The 1962-set plot centers on 16-year-old Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf, an exuberant delight throughout), who we meet as she welcomes the day in her beloved Baltimore, greeting the neighborhood flashers and alcoholics as she skips to school. Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Emery Henderson) are obsessed with “The Corny Collins Show,” an “American Bandstand”-like program where the “nicest kids in town” do the latest dances every week while Corny (Billy Dawson) makes like Dick Clark. The station allows “Negro Day” once a month, but otherwise, “The Corny Collins Show” is whiter than a box of Q-tips, exactly how its racist producer and washed-up beauty queen Velma Von Tussle (Addison Garner) wants it.
After landing in detention with some of the best dancers featured on Negro Day, Tracy enlists her new Black friend Seaweed Stubbs, (Brandon G. Stalling, showing off “Soul Train”-worthy moves) to help integrate Corny’s show. Meanwhile, Seaweed and Penny fall in love, undeterred by radio celebrity Motormouth Maybelle’s (Gabriyel Thomas, ably delivering the anthemic “I Know Where I’ve Been”) warning that the world won’t make life easy for an interracial couple. As Tracy finds a love interest in hunky Link Larkin (Will Savarese), Tracy’s mother Edna (Andrew Levitt) frets that her daughter will inevitably be heartbroken by a world that doesn’t make room for plus-size women like the Turnblads.
Lenz’s ensemble is very young, and while their raw talent is evident, it doesn’t feel like Lenz gave the group much direction: The acting styles run the gamut from shrill to over-the-top, both at their most excessive in a scene where Penny’s prudish mother (Emmanuelle Zeesman) aggressively throws herself at Seaweed, tongue slavering and hips grinding so insistently he’s forced to flee. Key lines such as Motormouth’s warning that Seaweed and Penny are in for “a whole lot of ugly from a never-ending parade of stupid” are thrown away rather than emphasized. The pacing alternates between rushed and laborious.
And while Marc Shaiman’s score remains a poppy, doo-woppy delight, the dialogue (book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan) is cringe-inducing at times, such as when “Special Ed” is used repeatedly as a punchline. The production shows its wear in other ways as well: The chorus is thinly stretched. David Rockwell’s set is below-bare-bones. Many of the costumes (by William Ivey Long) are poorly tailored. And those wigs by Paul Huntley and Richard Mawbey remain atrocious throughout.
For all that, “Hairspray” has a few key elements that are terrific. Foremost among them is Levitt as Tracy’s mother Edna. The role has traditionally been performed in drag ever since the late, great Divine originated it for Waters. To the pantheon of Great Ednas that includes John Travolta, Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Vilanch, we can now add Levitt, who, as Nina West, won the title of “Miss Congeniality” in the 11th season of “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.”
When Edna talks about how people “like us” aren’t embraced by the world, it’s more than a little wrenching. And when she finally ditches the drab house dresses and dons a swirly, feathery hot pink concoction, you can all but feel the elation rolling in waves from the stage.
And in its final 10 minutes or so, the cast’s enthusiastic shaking and shimmying will invariably have the audience on its feet. If only the rest of “Hairspray” held up as well.