Regional Reviews: Greater New York State
Twenty years later, Hairspray is still crossing the nation, this time in the form of a non-Equity tour. There's been no reinvention or reinterpretation of the original; though significantly scaled down, this is, in every way, your gay uncle's Hairspray from twenty years ago. It fills the cavernous Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, New York, with the same bop-after-bop score and gag-after-gag book that's been charming audiences for decades. Adapted from John Waters' seminal 1980s indie movie, the story of a young chubby girl who wants to dance on TV and integrate Baltimore is, to quote itself, "timeless to me."
So how does the big girl hold up?
Well, she's still big, for sure. Even though David Rockwell's original set has been downsized to curtains and a projection screen with a broken panel, the chunky-is-funky ethos of the original rings truer than ever thanks to a hard-working young cast. Caroline Eiseman, an understudy on for Tracy the night I saw the show, is joyous, earnest and wide-eyed. She brings sharpness, wit, and intelligence to the role. She is supported beautifully by the utterly irresistible Nick Cortazzo as her boyfriend Link and the warm hug that is her father, Wilbur, played with pathos and clarity by standout Ralph Prentice Daniel. Emery Henderson makes an unforgettable Penny: quirky, strange, and fully lovable. Charlie Bryant's Seaweed reads as moments away from a Motown deal. The rest of the principals and ensemble bring their all to the gymnastic demands of this high-energy show.
Alas, these buoyant young actors go a bit astray because they are unfortunately motherless, as Greg Kalafatas's Edna struggles more than some others I've seen as Tracey's mother, Edna Turnblad. (While the show's promotional materials still advertise "RuPaul's Drag Race" Star Nina West (Andrew Levitt) as Edna, he has been scrubbed from the playbill and Kalafatas has Edna billing.) Edna's transformation from insecure shut-in to fashion icon in the otherwise rollicking "Welcome to the Sixties" loses its power because this Edna does not fully embrace the sheer size of comedy the role demanded. Kalafatas succeeds more in Act 2, where a larger-than-life persona is given ample room to not only work, but werk.
The rest of the cast delivers, giving their all on a Wednesday night in the frigid provinces of upstate New York. The show remains a powerhouse, though at almost 20 years old, it's more a museum piece as a vibrant, fresh musical. The parallels Hairspray draws between the struggles of a chubby white girl and the entire segregated Black community of Baltimore in the early 1960s reads today less as revelatory and more as willfully ignorant. There's no denying that Tracy has it tough and that fat phobia was as real in 1963 as it is now. But synonymizing "overweight" and "Black" seems at best dated and at worst ignorant from a contemporary lens. What's more, this play about desegregation itself very much segregates its Black voices to tertiary storylines; of its sixteen numbers, only three are solos for Black characters. Hairspray might be pro-integration, but it fails to decenter whiteness.
These qualms aside, there's still no denying that you can't stop the beat; by the unending curtain call, all of Schenectady was on its feet and ready to dance. Like any great musical, Hairspray has transformed from hit-of-the-moment to joyous nostalgia-fest, though some of that nostalgia reminds that even if we know where we've been, we still have far to go.
Hairspray runs through December 11, 2022, at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady NY. For tickets and information, please visit the Box Office at Proctors in person, call 518-346-6204 Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. or visit proctors.org. For more information on the tour, visit https://hairspraytour.com.
Music and Arrangements, Lyrics: Marc Shaiman