Theater Review: HAIRSPRAY (National Tour)

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by William C. on April 17, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Tours


Can you ask for a more perfect pairing than a drag queen and the high camp of musical theater? In this national tour production of Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad and friends turn up the heat with their dance movies on the stage of Segerstrom Hall. The band is tight, the movements are swell, and the jokes are non-stop. And, if you are one of those theater snobs like yours truly that care about craft and storytelling, it is there too. This is a show that takes wrapping the medicine with a shit-ton of sugar seriously.

On the surface, this is a good ”ugly duckling” story mixed in with a little Cinderella. Literally, Tracy (Nicki Metcalf), our heroine, dances with rats at her feet in the opening number “Good Morning Baltimore.” She is a big girl with a big personality and an even bigger dream. Her BFF Penny Pingleton (Emery Henderson) is always at her side to play along with her fantasies, as and break out into spontaneous bursts of song and dance.

Cinderella had her evil stepmother and sisters, Tracy has the mother-daughter local television royalty, Amber and Velma Von Tussle (Ryahn Evers and Addison Garner). They are the skinny blonde queen bees of their kingdom, and are both fat-phobic and racist. Link, the prince charming of our story, played by a very easy on the eyes Nick Cortazzo, is a local teenage celebrity on the Corny Collins show. So, when a free-wheeling teenager takes an unexpected maternity leave from the show, the dream spot opens for all the teenage girls of Baltimore to try out. Tracy, our heroine, is hellbent on attending the audition to realize her dream to be on TV.

A more serious subplot is beneath Tracy’s arc. The racial tensions of 1950s America played out to the hilt in Baltimore. The progressive TV host Corny Collins (Billy Dawson) aims to integrate black talent into his show. And, you betcha, this goal is met with fierce protest and anger from the TV producers and the Ultra-Clutch Hairspray sponsor which just created a brand marketed to African Americans. The irony is not subtle. The entertainment industry is portrayed as only too happy to steal profit, dance moves, and music from the black community and concurrently uphold Jim-Crow era racist segregation. Perhaps perfectly captured by Miss Baltimore Crab, Velma Von Tussle, in one of her not-so-subtle rebuttals against Corny, ”We must guide our kids in the White direction.”

I can not love this cast enough. Boy, they all can sing! Metcalf’s voice is rich, powerful, and jovial. Her dance moves are filled with spunk. Cortazzo’s Link is sexy and gives a little Freddie Mercury vibe. Andrew Levitt as Nina West is a triumph in the role of Tracy’s mom Edna Turnblad. This queen is more than just funny. She carries each scene with grace, gravitas, and, yes, emotion. Sandie Lee’s powerhouse vocals as Black activist Motormouth Maybelle in “I Know Where I’ve Been” is sensationally emotional.

The evening’s most stunning, shining jewels are the Dynamite ladies: Jade Turner, Melanie Puente Ervin, and Sydney Archbald. The hall was lit with electric energy when they broke into their individual solos. Their voices were so bright and sonorous.

Shannon Slaton’s sound design is superb. The ensemble mixing is absolutely perfect. There were some hiccups made by the sound-op, but the balance of the ensemble is tuned as close to perfection as live theater gets. As the band was also not mixed too loudly, you could understand the lyrics perfectly. William Ivey Long, Paul Huntley, and Bernie Ardia’s wig and costume designs are tremendous fun. They are so campy, and they made Nina West look terrific.

I wish more musical theater were like this. It is filled with fun and talent of all shapes, sizes, and races that come together to tell the story of our country’s history. To be sure, it is not without inaccuracies because it is theater, not a scholarly textbook. However, it helps us think about the world differently. Perhaps, if we all had a little of Tracy’s can-do attitude, we might get through life together as a community.

Go watch this. Hell, take your grandmother, your racist uncle, your conspiracy theorist mother-in-law, your plants and your pets. Miracles can result from a shift in perception.

photos by Jeremy Daniel

national tour
reviewed at Segerstrom (ends April 29)
tour continues: for tickets, dates and cities, visit Hairspray Tour

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