Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Lorna Landvik: Pages and Stages
A new national tour of Hairspray has pulled into town for a week-long run. How has the show held up? Spectacularly! This non-Equity tour is in absolutely terrific shape. The talent on stage is first rate, from the leads–that would be newcomer Niki Metcalfe as Tracy Turnblad and Andrew Levitt, a veteran drag performer (under the name Nina West), who won Miss Congeniality on Season 11 of "RuPaul's Drag Race"–to every singing-and-dancing-their-hearts-out member of the ensemble. Tour director Matt Lenz credits the Broadway original's director Jack O'Brien, and Lenz keeps the show moving at a breathless pace while assuring that the constant barrage of laugh lines are given space to land. Robbie Roby, who treated us to the lavish choreography of the Ordway's Beauty and the Beast just last month, here has created a dazzling array of high energy dances (half of the show's twenty listed musical numbers feature dance) and one show-stopping old-school romantic fox trot for Edna and her husband Wilbur, played with elan by Ralph Prentice Daniel.
Hairspray is set in Baltimore in the year 1962. The Kennedy administration had brought fresh ideas to the nation, and the civil rights struggle is well underway, albeit far from having made significant gains, with Southern segregationists digging in their heels, including in Baltimore, a city poised on the north-south border. With the optimistic "Good Morning, Baltimore," white high schooler Tracy Turnblad announces her determination to make a mark in her city. She is obsessed with being chosen for the council, a clique of all-white teen dancers dubiously declared "The Nicest Kids in Town" on "The Corny Collins Show," an American Bandstand-like television fixture. Her mother Edna discourages her, as people who look like the two of them–that is, overweight–do not become TV stars unless it is for the purpose of being laughed at.
Tracy is sent to detention for neglecting school in favor of "The Corny Collins Show." At detention she learns slick dance moves from a Black student named Seaweed Stubbs. Seaweed's mother turns out to be Motormouth Maybelle, host of "Negro Day," a once-a-month departure from Corny Collins' usual fare. Tracy expresses her belief that she and Seaweed should be able to dance together on the show. Before we know it, Tracy is on the show, making a splash and getting attention from the show's hunky heartthrob, Link Larson, to the dismay of mean-spirited, self-absorbed teen prima donna, Amber Van Tussle, and Amber's conniving mother, Velma, who, not coincidentally, is the show's producer. One fashion make-over for Edna, a dance party at Motormouth Maybelle's record shop, an attempt to break the Corny Collins color barrier, an arrest and time in "the big house," a daring escape, an empowering civil rights anthem, and a final confrontation at the TV studio is all it takes for Tracy to prove that, yes, Baltimore is ready to see black and white kids together–to say nothing of plus size gals–dancing on TV, no matter what the show's sponsor, Ultra-Clutch Hairspray, thinks.
All this is told in a rapid-fire form in Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book that is not just sprinkled with jokes, but marinated with them–genuinely witty and just shy of crossing the line between good and bad taste. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's songs perfectly capture a mix of early 1960s sounds: girl group harmonies ("Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now", "I Can Hear the Bells"); rhythm and blues ("Run and Tell That," "Big, Blonde and Beautiful"; romantic teen-angst ("It Takes Two"); bubble-gum pop ("Welcome to the '60s," "Without Love,"); pumped up dance beats ("The Nicest Kids in Town," "You Can't Stop the Beat"); and the lovely "(You're) Timeless to Me," a perfect crowd pleaser and the heart of this abundantly good-hearted show, scooped off the stage of a vintage television variety show.
Along with the terrific performances by Niki Metcalf, Andrew Levitt and Ralph Prentice Daniel as the Turnblad family (Tracy, Edna and Wilbur, respectively), there are great performances by Addison Gardner as Velma Van Tussle, a swell villain who delivers a chilling "Miss Baltimore Crabs," Nick Cortazzo as preening Link Larson, who discovers values beyond his own self-promotion, Emery Henderson as Tracy's BFF Penny Pingleton, making a hilarious transformation from ugly duckling to sizzling swan, Charles Bryant III, dancing his legs off as Seaweed Stubbs, and in particular, Melanie Puente Ervin (subbing for Sandie Lee on opening night), who blows the roof right off the top of the Orpheum with her delivery of "Big, Blonde and Beautiful," and then tops it with the anthemic "I Know Where I've Been."
The set design by David Rockwell works perfectly well to establish the Baltimore locations, spangled in early '60s pastels, with stone-walled high school and prison sets that have an uncanny resemblance to one another. William Ivey Long, who has designed costumes for everyone from the Vienna State Opera to Mick Jagger, uses those same pastels, oversized lapels, garish ornamentation, and angular cuts to create costumes that look like a fun house version of 1962 yearbook photos. Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia's imaginative and outlandish hair and wig designs deserve an ovation of their own. Paul Miller's lighting design (based on Kenneth Posner's original work on Broadway) and Shannon Slaton's sound designs keep the sounds and sights of the show in focus throughout.
All this talent, tunefulness and joviality begs a question: are Hairspray's themes of breaking down barriers between the races as pertinent today as twenty years ago? And if so, is the manner in which they are handled as appropriate now as it was then? To the first question, yes, absolutely. In spite of undeniable progress in breaking racial barriers, there continue to be serious discrepancies in life outcomes along numerous measures–home ownership, educational achievement, employment rates, imprisonment rates, net worth, and health indicators to name a few. Yes, we now see Black and white dancers freely mix on stage, in films, and on television. But what happens when the dancers head home?
If the need to raise the issue of racial disparities remains, can we still celebrate the spunk of a white girl–albeit one with outsider status due to being the "wrong" body type–as the heroine who leads the charge for race relations? Yes, Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed and their community rally to Tracy's call, and Motormouth comes up with a stirring anthem, but why does it take a Tracy Turnblad to initiate their effort? Where were their own spokespersons and strategists before Tracy arrived with her wide-eyed idealism? Of course, Hairspray is first and foremost an entertainment, and not likely meant to be taken as a sociological tract or political broadside, but it bears noting that this charming depiction of change, accompanied by jokes, singing and dancing, obscures the real work done at great cost by people of color, going back many generations.
Looking through a different lens, there are no gay characters in Hairspray. Well, remember, it is 1962 and anyone on the scene who was lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, or anything other than straight would likely be deeply closeted. However, we have Edna Turnblad embodied as a very large man–obviously a man–in drag, which can be taken as a winking acknowledgement that the images of ubiquitous cis heterosexuality on stage are not all they seem to be. That would seem to be the case John Waters was making in his 1988 film, as well as the creators of the musical in 2002. Does that premise still work today? My own vantage point is "yes" but that counts as just one vote.
But back to those jokes, the terrific songs, the remarkable dance numbers, the fabulous performances, the split-second staging. Those are present in abundance, and Hairspray remains, after twenty years, a great entertainment. Feel free to think about its unsettled issues after you have enjoyed the show, but do not let that stop you from enjoying one of the best times ever conjured up by a musical comedy.
Hairspray runs through January 15, 2023, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $139.00. Educator and Student Rush Seats available for unsold tickets beginning two hours before performances, $40.00, cash only, limit of two tickets per ID (limited, most likely single seats only. For tickets and performance schedule call 612-339-7007 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit hairspraytour.com/.
Book: Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the Lew Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters; Music and Arrangements: Marc Shaiman; Lyrics: Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman; Original Director: Jack O'Brien; Tour Director: Matt Lenz; Original Choreography: Jerry Mitchell; Tour Choreography: Robbie Roy; Scenic Design: David Rockwell; Costume Design: William Ivey Long; Lighting Design: Paul Miller, based on the Broadway lighting design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design: Shannon Slaton; Wigs and Hair Design: Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia; Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler; Music Supervision: Keith Thompson; Music Coordinator: John Mezzio; Music Conductor: Julius LaFlamme; Casting: Duncan Stewart CSA and Benton Whitley CSA; Production Stage Manager: Emily Kritzman; Assistant Stage Manager: Megan Belgam; Executive Producer: Trinity Wheeler.
Cast: Sydney Archibald (Dynamite, Peaches), Kelly Barberito (Tommy), Tommy Betz (Fender), Helene Britany (Shelley), Charlie Bryant III (Seaweed J. Stubbs), Nick Cortazzo (Link Larson), Ralph Prentice Daniel (Wilbur Turnblad), Billy Dawson (Corny Collins), Caroline Eiseman (swing), Melanie Puente Ervin (Pearl, Dynamite), Ryahn Evers (Amber Van Tussle), Craig First (Brad), Alex Fullerton (swing), Anne Gagen (Lou Ann), Addison Gardner (Velma Van Tussle), Carly Haig (Brenda), Emery Henderson (Penny Pingleton), Lauren Johnson (Lorraine), Sabrina Joseph (swing), Greg Kalafatas (Harriman F. Spritzer, Mr. Pinky, Principal, Prison Guard), Kyle Kavully (Thad), Matthew J. Kelly (swing), Sandie Lee (Motormouth Mabel), Andrew Levitt (Edna Turnblad), Joi D. McCoy (Little Inez), McLaine Meachem (swing, dance captain), Niki Metcalf (Tracy Turnblad), Faith Northcutt (swing, dance captain), Nicholas Dion Reese (Duane), Sage (Gilbert) Micah Sauvageau (swing), Clint Maddox Thompson (I.Q.), Jade Turner (Cindy Watkins, Dynamite), Mickey White (Sketch), Emmanuelle Zeesman (Prudy Pingleton, gym teacher, prison matron). Reviewed by Arty Dorman