Theater Review: HAIRSPRAY (San Diego Musical Theatre at Horton Grand Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on August 12, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


To say you like Hairspray really doesn’t cut it. Do you mean the 1988 John Waters film starring Devine and newcomer Ricki Lake? Or maybe you mean the 2003 Tony winner for “Best Musical,” which also yielded Harvey Fierstein a Tony for his role as Edna? Or maybe you mean the star-studded 2007 film created from that musical with the softer, gentler Edna played by John Travolta? Not to mention the 2016 live TV version. Whatever your Hairspray taste(s), this universal story of the underdog fighting her way to the top through music and dance has entertained millions and successfully continues to do so at San Diego Musical Theatre.

Our heroine, growing up in 1962 Baltimore, is the corpulent, plucky juvenile Tracy Turnblad (Bethany Slomka), who dreams of being among the popular, perfectly-coiffed, teen dancing girls on TV’s The Corny Collins Show. To her delight, one of the dancers must take a break (for exactly nine months…hmmm) which opens a spot for a new girl on the show. Against the admonishment of her mother Edna (John Massey), Tracy plays hooky to audition for this position. She quickly discovers that she is not the image of perfection that the TV station and, in particular, producer Velma Von Tussle (Eileen Bowman) are looking for. Tracy is also bold enough to blurt out to the bigoted Velma that the show needs to be racially integrated, sealing Velma’s disgust with her.

Can Tracy make her way onto the show? Will her friendships with black students at her school raise problems for her? Might she actually be able to get the attention of the show’s teen heartthrob, Link Larkin (Nickolas Eiter)? The answers to these questions, along with over 20 funny and harmonious songs (music by Marc Shaiman; lyrics by both him and Scott Wittmann), make up the joyful spectacle that is Hairspray.

Under J. Scott Lapp’s direction, Ms. Slomka’s portrayal of Tracy is bolder and sharper than ever, especially if one is most familiar with Nikki Blonski’s sweeter interpretation of the role in the 2007 film. Tracy is unapologetic in her lust for Link, her distaste for her new rival Amber (Lauren King Thompson), and her passion to act upon her convictions. Mr. Massey, in drag as Edna, consistently cracks the audience up with both deadpan delivery of his scripted lines and some clear enhancements to the original book during his sweet love song “Timeless to Me” with husband Wilbur (Steve Gunderson, tremendously funny and versatile in four roles).

The only negative to the entire production is that, in a handful of songs, including the opening “Good Morning, Baltimore,” faster-paced lyrics are occasionally lost to the band’s volume for several solo singers. Beyond that, the dancing (under choreographer Jill Gorrie) and the singing (under musical director Don Le Master) to the 15-piece band is tight and lively with excellent comedic timing and enjoyable voices throughout.

It would be insufficient to leave it at that, though, without first shining a spotlight on Eboni Muse in the role of outspoken voice-of-the-black- community Motormouth Maybelle. Beyond capturing the essence of the role, it was an honor to have been present, and seated so close in the somewhat intimate Horton Grand Theatre, for her performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which had people standing up and cheering afterward because of the power and soul she put into it.  Remarkable!

Having reviewed and/or seen over twenty SDMT productions, Hairspray ranks as one of their tightest yet and, with its joyful spirit and playful energy, likely the most entertaining of them all. Congrats to SDMT on one of the best local productions of 2018.

photos by Ken Jacques

San Diego Musical Theatre
Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on September 2, 2018
for tickets, call 858.560.5740 or visit SDMT

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