Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Hairspray: Big hair, big laughs
By Mark Liu
(November 20, 2003) — This just in: A very large man in a house dress, support hose and sparkly blue glasses was seen dancing and prancing in the city Wednesday night, and thousands of supposedly conservative Rochesterians whooped in approval.
Yes, Hairspray, the hit musical based on the John Waters movie, has arrived. If you’re as smart as I think you are, you’ll stop reading this and go out and buy a ticket, or three. This production and cast — one of the best shows to roll through Rochester in a couple of years — make for an embarrassment of riches, with no weak links and no letup in the untamed, unapologetic fun.
It’s 1962 Baltimore, and misfit teenager Tracy Turnblad (Carly Jibson) is obsessed with getting on the American Bandstand-like Corny Collins Show. She knows the songs and the moves, but there’s one big problem: Tracy is one big girl. As her even bigger mother (Bruce Vilanch in drag) explains it, “They don’t put people like us on TV.”
The producer of the dance show, a Norma Desmond type and former Miss Baltimore Crabs, laughs Tracy out of the tryouts. But when Tracy learns some wicked dance moves from Seaweed (Terron Brooks), a black kid in detention, she dreams big again. She hatches a plot to shock the world and dance with her new “colored” friends on TV, all while trying to steal the heart of the show’s heartthrob (Austin Miller) from untalented brat Amber (Jordan Ballard).
That’s the plot, but it’s the twisted, bawdy, hyper-comic way they get through it that really matters. It’s a funhouse of Watusi-spiced Mashed Potato dance steps, innuendo-laden puns that you doubt you should laugh at even as you’re laughing, and satire, satire, satire. This show sends up everything it touches, with constant gags, catchy music and sharply clever dialogue.
In the hands of such an extravagantly talented cast, the material crackles and dazzles. And in a show overflowing with high-energy performances, Jibson as Tracy seems to own the power plant. At times, her bug-eyed dancing and gyrating is so manic, she looks in danger of exploding right out of herself. It’s comic motion on a different, rarely visited plane.
Sandra Denise as her two-packs-of-Wrigley’s-a-day sidekick is consistently funny, having perfected a spaz-ditz delivery that got laughs all on its own.
And Vilanch as Tracy’s mom is scary-funny. Looking something like a vending machine in a dress, he filled the stage in every way. If there were a sequel of just him in drag, making those lip-stretching gestures of duress and flummox, it would be standing-room only. The number with him (her) and her husband (Todd Susman) was pure theater: No gimmicks, just great writing and painfully funny choreography, one-liners and ad-libs.
When a show calls for an actor to sing, dance and be funny, sometimes you have to say that two out of three ain’t bad. But here is a full cast that can do it all. Throw in the fact that Hairspray even smells good — some sort of cotton-candy aroma jetting out of all those hairspray cans — and you’ve got yourself a big, bad, satisfying time.
But you’re smart: You’re already on your way to the box office.
Freelancer Mark Liu writes about theater.