Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

National Tour

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of Julie Benko: Stand By, Me and The Tutor

Caroline Eiseman
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Going to theatre can be a form of escapism, a chance to immerse oneself in a different universe. This is especially true with musicals: after all, in the humdrum world outside the theater door, the clothes are generally less colorful, and the people wearing them only rarely break into song or perform complex choreography. I'm thinking of shows like Mamma Mia!, Anything Goes, Hello, Dolly! and The Drowsy Chaperone. Then there are the heavier musicals, ones with dark themes or important messages, such as Sweeney Todd, South Pacific, Next to Normal, or Spring Awakening.

In between those two extremes lies Hairspray. At its core, Hairspray is about a very heavy subject indeed: racism and segregation, and the struggle to overcome two of America's most pernicious evils. When I talk to people about The Book of Mormon, I usually tell them it has a very prickly exterior of blasphemy and profanity (and AIDS), but that it has a very soft center: a message that faith–even based on a fiction–can be a good thing if it helps get you through the night and treat other people better. Hairspray is the opposite: its exterior is all bright colors, likable (mostly) characters, and energetic pop music, while the core is about prejudice, bullying, and fat-shaming.

The road production of Hairspray running this week at BroadwaySF's Orpheum Theatre is a terrific introduction to this musical (with book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman) and worthy of a second (or third or fourth) viewing if you've already seen the show. While it reminds us of the deep-seated nature of racism in America, Hairspray delivers its message in an entertaining, colorful way, thanks to a fantastic score, wondrous performances by a very talented cast, and general over-the-top wackiness.

The conflict at the heart of Hairspray is that "The Corny Collins Show" (an after school TV dance program airing in Baltimore in the early 1960s) is segregated. Only popular white kids (or, as one of the first numbers calls them, "The Nicest Kids in Town") get to dance. While the show has a once-a-month "Negro Day," that's not enough for Tracy Turnblad (Caroline Eiseman), a plus-size teenager and uber-fan who tries out for a spot on the show, despite the worries of her mother Edna (Greg Kalafatas), who fears Tracy will be crushed when she is rejected. A reasonable concern, especially with the snooty attitude of the show's producer Velma Von Tussle (a wonderfully venal Sarah Hayes) and her bully of a daughter Amber (Caroline Portner).

Impressed by her dancing–and catching the eye of the show's male heartthrob Link Larkin (Skyler Shields, who boasts a terrific, powerful voice)–Tracy lands a spot on the show. But when she also lands a spot in detention for having cut class to get to the audition, Tracy meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Josiah Rogers), a Black classmate and son of local DJ Motormouth Maybelle (Deidre Lang, who brought down the house with her rendition of "I Know Where I've Been"). Together, they and their friends hatch a plot to integrate "The Corny Collins Show." By the end of Hairspray, Link and Tracy will be an item, the Von Tussles will get their comeuppance, and "The Corny Collins Show" will henceforth allow Black kids and white kids to boogie on the same dance floor.

Though these second-run touring companies will sometimes have a few weak voices and less than precise dancing, this production of Hairspray really doesn't have any weak points in the non-Equity cast. Eiseman is delightful as Tracy, but she is upstaged on a regular basis by an adorably geeky performance by Scarlett Jacques at Penny Pingleton, Tracy's best friend. Jacques does great blank, uncomprehending stares (Penny is not the brightest bulb on the tree) and pouts her lips outward as she attempts to wrap her mind around whatever action has confused her.

The sets clearly have the feel of a tour that needs to set up and break down quickly, but they work nonetheless, evoking an early '60s feel with cockeyed Baltimore row houses, the studio of WZZT-TV, Trudy's high school and the "Big Dollhouse" jail into which the kids are incarcerated after their first attempt to integrate "The Corny Collins Show." Something I hadn't noticed the first three times I've seen Hairspray is how choreographer Jerry Mitchell (in addition to creating great moves overall) indicates the racism of 1962 Baltimore at the very top of the show. As the chorus dances, the groups of white and Black cast members strut their stuff separately. Only later in the show do they get to dance together. There is also a line I don't remember from previous versions that seems like a recent–and timely–addition: it comes as Tracy bemoans the unfairness of the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant, saying "Manipulating our justice system just to win a contest is un-American!" The crowd at the Orpheum roared with laughter and recognition.

If you've never seen Hairspray, you've missed out on a lot of fun. Don't miss out this time: get your tickets and enjoy both the mirth and the message.

Hairspray runs though April 26, 2024, at BroadwaySF's Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $49-$240. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 888-746-1799 or visit For information on the tour, visit