Hairspray Still Holding Strong In San Francisco

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Originally published by SF Weekly Jun 09, 2004
The stage adaptation of the cult classic film Hairspray sticks with you

It’s possible that John Waters was riffing off the Broadway musical Hair when he dreamt up the idea for his 1988 pop-camp trailer-trash cult classic film Hairspray. And now that his movie has moved to the stage, half the town’s got the two hit musicals (both concerned with adolescence and epidermal outgrowth) confused. Here’s the three-second scoop: Hair takes place in the late ’60s and is about a bunch of kids protesting the Vietnam War and coming to terms with adulthood; Hairspray, now playing at the Golden Gate Theatre, takes place in 1962, just as the square “hair-hoppers” are giving way to the hip Beatniks, and it’s about body-image politics and racial integration. Hairspray opened on Broadway last year and collected eight Tony Awards, and it’s easy to see how: It’s a fantastic musical. Between the score (which combines bebop, rock, blues, and show tunes) and the humorous but meaningful script, it’s actually more vibrant, and resonates more deeply, than the original film.

We first meet Tracy Turnblad when she opens her sleepy eyes from a vertically hung bed; as she sings the upbeat “Good Morning, Baltimore,” her bedroom transforms into her neighborhood, where she greets her neighbors (including the town flasher and the local drunk) with exuberance. Played by the energetic Keala Settle, Tracy is a toe-tapping, hip-swinging typical teenager with an expansive heart, monumental dreams, and hair so high it is a hazard in a lightning storm. In fact, everything about Tracy is super-sized, and that’s precisely her problem: She’d give anything, even her monthly supply of Aqua Net, to be one of the regular teen dancers on the locally broadcast Corny Collins show (based on the real-life Buddy Deane show of that era), but because of her round figure, she can’t even get an audition.

When she finally manages to strut her stuff in front of Corny, she gets chosen as a replacement for the “fun-loving and freewheeling” Brenda, who’s taking a suspicious nine-month leave of absence, and sets her sights on Elvis-wannabe Link Larkin (a charismatic Austin Miller), the show’s biggest heartthrob. But Tracy will have to go through at least Link’s mean-spirited, rich girlfriend Amber (the villainous beauty Jordan Ballard) to get to Link. Tracy’s goals are bigger than romance, though: She wants to dance with her black friends. Currently, they’re allowed on Corny Collins one day of the month (“Negro Day”); Tracy’s wish is that every day could be Negro Day (to which her cute new African-American pal Seaweed replies, “At my house, it is”). Soon, Tracy’s desire for fame is overshadowed by her desire to do the right thing, which lands her in all sorts of places, not the least of which is the slammer.

Although the actors aren’t real teens as they were in the cast of the Waters film (which was helmed by a young Ricki Lake), there’s still plenty of teen angst in this Hairspray, and it certainly swept us back into (or dragged us painfully through) memories of those formative years. In this respect, the musical feels more emotionally realistic than the movie. In the cinematic version, nearly everyone on Corny Collins becomes an adoring fan of the new girl on the roster; in the stage version, the popular kids (with the exception of Link) all detest Tracy and belittle her to no end. The rejection of her white peers — and repeated detention for blocking the view of the chalkboard with her bouffant — means Tracy’s soon running with the black crowd at school. Seaweed (a sassy Terron Brooks) falls for Tracy’s dimwitted but open-hearted best friend, Penny Pingleton (played by Sandra Denise), who sings: “In my ivory tower life/ I was just a Twinkie snack/ But now I’ve tasted chocolate/ and I’m never going back.” The lyrics are liberally and delightfully sprinkled with such sharp metaphors and unexpected punch lines.

The mood of the musical also takes some darker dips. Penny’s stage mother, who is more realistically cruel than her kooky cinematic mom, ties her to the bed at one point to prevent her from leaving the house. The situation is exacerbated by the teen’s new black boyfriend, and in this way, the show takes on the issue of abuse more aggressively than the film. We also get a stronger sense here that Tracy might be Jewish (not only from her last name, but also from other small references made in the production), and we remember the days when Jews and blacks fought side by side for civil rights. (Though it’s not explicit in the script, Tracy could very well have been the first Jew on Corny Collins.) There’s an earnestness and an honesty to the story and the characters in the play that we don’t (and probably weren’t meant to) feel in Waters’ camped-up satire, which gives us a deeper connection to the experience as a whole.

Hairspray’s got a dynamite set that includes a back wall of disco lights, moving buildings, and a prison cell that comes apart and reassembles to make the audience feel like it has moved from outside to inside the jail. It’s got some great lines, too, as when Seaweed’s mother encourages her son’s new colorblind romance but gently warns him and Penny to brace themselves for “a whole lotta ugly comin’ at you from a never-ending parade of stupid.” But apart from its direct attention to worthy themes, it’s the music that makes Hairspray the success it is. Written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and conducted by a live orchestra, the tunes distinguish the characters but also link them together (as in songs like “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” in which Amber, Penny, and Tracy all tell their mothers to shove off and let them grow up). Love’s a big theme as well, and a wonderful duet between Tracy’s parents, called “Timeless to Me,” finds actors Todd Susman (as her svelte jokester father) and Bruce Vilanch (in drag, as her bodacious mother) confessing their devotion and delivering both scripted and improvised lines that take down the house. There’s never a dull moment in Hairspray, and when the show ends, the joy in the room is palpable enough to make your hair stand on end.