Opened September 9, 2003

Baltimore, Maryland


A Margo Lion, Adam Epstein, Baruch-Viertel-Routh-Frankel Group, James D. Stern/Douglas L. Meyer, Rick Steiner/Frederic H. Mayerson, SEL & GFO, New Line Cinema presentation, in association with Clear Channel Entertainment, A. Gordon/E. McAllister, D. Harris/M. Swinsky and J&B Osher, of a musical in two acts, with book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Choreography by Jerry Mitchell. Sets, David Rockwell; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Steve C. Kennedy; wigs and hair, Paul Huntley; associate director, Matt Lenz; associate choreographer, Michele Lynch; production stage manager, Kimberly Fisk; orchestrations, Harold Wheeler; music supervision, Lon Hoyt; conductor/musical director, Jim Vukovich; arrangements, Shaiman; music coordinator, John Miller. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Tracy Turnblad - Carly Jibson
Corny Collins - Troy Britton Johnson
Amber Von Tussle - Jordan Ballard
Brad - Bryan Crawford
Tammy - Lauren Kling
Fender - Michael Cunio
Brenda - Alli Mauzey
Sketch - Bryan West
Shelley - Donna Vivino
IQ - Jesse Johnson
Lou Ann - Angela Gaylor
Link Larkin - Austin Miller
Prudy Pingleton - Joanna Glushak
Edna Turnblad - Bruce Vilanch
Penny Pingleton - Sandra Denise
Velma Von Tussle - Susan Cella
Harriman F. Spritzer - Blake Hammond
Wilbur Turnblad - Todd Susman
Principal - Blake Hammond
Seaweed J. Stubbs - Terron Brooks
Duane - E. Clayton Cornelious
Gilbert - Willis White
Lorraine - Jacqueline B. Arnold
Thad - Leonard E. Sullivan
The Dynamites - Deidre Lang,
Nraca, Sabrina N. Scherff
Mr. Pinky - Blake Hammond
Gym Teacher - Joanna Glushak
Little Inez - Kianna Underwood
Maybelle - Charlotte Crossley
Matron - Joanna Glushak
Guard - Blake Hammond

There was no doubt that "Good Morning Baltimore," the opening number in "Hairspray," would be received with boisterous cheers in the beehive-hairdo-proud city that inspired native son John Waters' 1988 film and the 2002 musical whose eight Tony Awards include best musical. The question filling the aerosol spray-filled air was whether the national tour starting here could come up with actors capable of matching the Tony Award-winning perfs by Marissa Jaret Winokur as the hefty Tracy Turnblad and Harvey Fierstein as her even heftier mom, Edna. Those are big dresses to fill.

The good news is that this company's Tracy, 19-year-old Carly Jibson (in her professional debut), is a chubby charmer with instant star appeal. In her heartfelt delivery of such songs as "I Can Hear the Bells," she makes Tracy so eager to earn a place on a teen-dance TV show in 1962 Baltimore that her enthusiasm will make auds root for her through the show's silliest plot contrivances.

The more qualified good news is that Bruce Vilanch, a clever writer with limited acting experience, gives a broadly defined drag performance that earns laughs but lacks maternal warmth. Vilanch convincingly wears Edna's tent-sized house dresses, zestfully croaks his songs and has solid comic timing, but one hopes he'll grow into the hausfrau role as he (playing a she) spends more time at the ironing board.

The mother-daughter dynamics need adjusting, but that's just about the only alteration required in a road company that seems likely to delight audiences nationwide. Director Jack O'Brien and other members of the creative team reproducing the Broadway hit have assembled a cotton candy-hued, fast-paced production in which the large cast breezes through Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman songs that are a savvy blend of doo-wop, funk and other pop sounds. The score manages to simultaneously spoof and lovingly emulate the sounds of that era. True to its show-concluding number, "You Can't Stop the Beat," there's no stopping this music.

The script by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan goes by just as smoothly. "Hairspray" is a sweet, only occasionally slightly naughty fable about racial integration. Its ideals lifted even higher than its hair, it celebrates working-class white girl Tracy's quest to get her black friends onto a TV show that is as white as most of the music it plays. Tracy charges ahead in a preserved-in-amber, rowhouse-lined Baltimore that, like the lean teen queen character Amber Von Tussle, is reluctant to accept African-Americans, funky music or fat girls. Although some of the more arcane Baltimore references may need footnotes elsewhere in the country, the story and its moral will register everywhere.

Among those playing the cartoonishly scripted supporting roles with real sparkle are Jordan Ballard as the beautiful and mean Amber; Susan Cella as Amber's equally dictatorial mother, Velma; Troy Britton Johnson as slick TV show host Corny Collins; Austin Miller as Link Larkin, the teen hunk Tracy not so secretly adores; Terron Brooks as Seaweed, the hip black teen who teaches Tracy some new moves; and Charlotte Crossley as black musical personality Motormouth Maybelle.

Much credit also goes to creative team members reprising their work from the New York show, including choreographer Jerry Mitchell, set designer David Rockwell, costume designer William Ivey Long and, surely deserving special notice in a musical called "Hairspray," wig and hair designer Paul Huntley.

Boston Goes Bonzo For Bruce in "Hairsray"
Best `Hair' day
By Terry Byrne
The Boston Herald
Thursday, October 9, 2003

You don't have to tease your hair to get a lift out of ``Hairspray.''

This musical is so exhilarating, it will pick you up out of your seat and have you dancing in the aisles.

Nothing has been sacrificed for the national tour of this show, which plays at the Colonial for the next month, and with 19-year-old Carly Jibson in the lead, this company is as strong, if not better, than the Broadway originals.

John Waters' 1988 film managed to pair big hair with big dreams, and the musical's creative team of book writers Dean O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman have taken the heart and soul of the film and given it an energized new beat, with jaw-dropping attention to detail.

From the moment the show opens with ``Good Morning, Baltimore,'' the energy level is cranked high and never gives an inch. Jibson, as Tracy Turnblad, the teen who's ready to change first Baltimore, then the world, is so full of personality, she fairly leaps off the stage, and her commitment to both dancing and her friends is infectious. It's impossible not to watch her every minute she's on stage, and she always rewards the audience with some little touch to win you over (her frenzied response to ``It Takes Two'' is worth the price of admission alone).

Bruce Vilanch as Tracy's loving mom, is in the tricky position of filling the high heels of both Divine (from the film) and Harvey Fierstein (who picked up a Tony for his performance). But Vilanch isn't at all fazed, and even works references to the Big Dig and the Red Sox into his routine. As Tracy's inventive joker dad, Todd Susman is delightfully low-key. The pair adds some individual quirks to ``Timeless To Me'' and there's something wonderful about a musical in which the show-stopper is an old-fashioned romantic duet sung by two men.

But every member of this company is first-rate, including the gorgeous-voiced Charlotte Crossley as Motormouth Maybelle; the deliciously dramatic Susan Cella as Velma Von Tussle; Terron Brooks as Tracy's pal, Seaweed; Austin Miller as Tracy's heartthrob, Linc Larkin; and Sandra Denise as Tracy's best pal, Penny Pingleton.

What makes this production so strong is that this company can sing, dance and act with such commitment to their characters, it's impossible not to be swept up in the fun.

Shaiman's score is a delirious combination of rock, gospel and the old show-tune shuffle, and Wittman and Shaiman's lyrics move the story along (``Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now''), make moral points without preaching (``Big, Blonde & Beautiful,'' ``I Know Where I've Been'') and just have fun. (``The Big Dollhouse,'' which opens Act II, is hilarious.)

Director Jack O'Brien moves the action at a breathless pace while keeping the connections clear. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell is faithful to the '60s dance feel while introducing bits of routines and then building on them in later numbers.

David Rockwell's low-tech design is nothing less than inspired, cleverly referencing other musicals, taking advantage of silhouettes and simple panels for effects that are explosive. Combined with William Ivey Long's eye-popping costumes and Kenneth Posner's focused lighting, ``Hairspray'' casts a wonderful spell.

When the company closes the show with ``You Can't Stop the Beat,'' they're not kidding.

And The Raves Keep Coming!
Hairspray brings down the Colonial Theater
by Alissa Green
Daily Editorial Board

Few musicals can claim the sheer wit, jubilance, and joy present in the national tour of Hairspray. Modeled after the hit 1988 film by John Waters, the play takes place in segregated Baltimore in 1962: a time of big dreams, big dance moves, and even bigger hair.

This musical has the chops to be the definitive contemporary piece of its genre, as it follows the squeals of protagonist Tracy Turnblad while she tries to shimmy her way to stardom in the form of local TV dance show, "The Corny Collins Show"(pun intended). Fun, funny, and with enough class to poke fun at itself, if you see one theatrical event in Boston this fall -- make it Broadway in Boston's Hairspray.

Perhaps John Waters was simply inspired by the zaniness inherent in satire and decided to devote himself to exploring its full, zany potential, or he saw Hair, and felt a mane musical name-game challenge coming on.

But, unlike Hair, Hairspray's depth far exceeds its seemingly frivolous title. While coyly tackling the serious racial issues in the historically turbulent city of Baltimore, Hairspray takes on a fantastical character at some points, like when one of the show's characters uses a bottle of the titular hairspray as a makeshift blowtorch to bust out of prison. It's hot.

Mostly, it's hot because the show's romantic leads are so darn convincing. Carly Jibson as Tracy glows theatrical magic. She's giddy, jolly, and so lovable you want to jump on stage and gleefully shriek with her when hunky Link Lark, as played exuberantly by Austin Miller, accidentally touches her arm.

Likewise, five minutes and a fantastical song later, you want to cry with her when Link's girlfriend Amber Von Tussle, saucily played by Jordan Ballard, interrupts their moment, making fun of Tracy's extra body mass in the process. Amber along with her mother Velma, a producer and power maven for the "Corny Collins Show," together create the perfect villainesses. For while actress Susan Cella could easily have made Velma into the typical evil stereotype, she truly embraced Velma for the type of racist and nepotistic woman that likely lived in a segregated city that the audience could love to hate.

As musicals go, rarely can they redefine the traditional villain. What's better is when they redefine our hearts. From its anything but sleepy opening number, "Good morning, Baltimore," until its final unstoppable "You Can't Stop the Beat" Hairspray takes on this mission with open arms. Another way of putting it: its bubble gum goodness is infectious.

The tremendously inventive set aids this operation as well, using all the colors of the rainbow as well as the occasional polka dot. If the performances weren't so spectacular in themselves, the set's sheer energy could easily overpower the show. From jungle gyms to carnival like sight gags, watching this story unfold could not be more fun.

The set and novelty lights work together with Tracy's latest crazy adventure to create a most affable aura: the kind that refuses to believe that there can be bad in the world.

When thinking about the Hairspray the movie, there is often one luscious character that immediately comes to mind: Tracy's mom, Edna, played in the film by the large and lovely cross-dresser Divine. The play respects this choice, via Hollywood Squares' Bruce Vilanch as the darling Edna -- and the laughs just roll off of him. Between making spontaneous yet relevant off the cuff comments (when wearing an all red ensemble he remarked about all he lacked were "red socks") and his jubilant comedic timing, Vilanch's performance is impeccable.

Frankly, the timing of Hairspray's arrival onto the theatrical scene was fairly flawless itself. Stylistically very different than last year's big tours, the only show Hairspray could possibly be compared to is The Producers, 2001's opening ticket office success. True, while it was a tough campaign to follow (The Producers won 12 Tonys to Hairspray's 8), there's some sparkle in both shows that make them stand out amongst the present musical flock. Both Billy Joel's empathetic Vietnam love affair ballet Movin' Out and ABBA-driven musical Mamma Mia!, rely on their story's catchy music to propel their play's action, without the levity of Hairspray's interracial drama to propel the plot.

Perhaps that is what Hairspray embodies most, it is a cockeyed optimist of a show. And, it is proud of it.

"Hairspray" Rocks Rhode Island!
Mister D: Mr. Vilanch talks of opening night: "The first night the lights went out just before "timeless" and I entertained in the dark like Dixie Leonard. Then the lights came on and the set wouldn't move. more improv... the theatre is a restored old movie palace, quite fabulous, but vast." And from what I gather from this article, the audience absolutley loved it.

Piled high with jokes and songs, Hairspray is no tease
Thursday, November 6, 2003
By CHANNING GRAY (I Love This Name...Beautiful!)
Providence Journal Arts Writer

Forget about the hype. Hairspray is the real deal -- at least the zany, upbeat tour that pulled into the Providence Performing Arts Center this week.

It's got great tunes (a blend of '60s doo-wop and trumpet-accented soul), great voices and some outrageous gags -- even when things don't go according to plan.

At Tuesday's opening, the lighting fizzled and the stage went dark for 15 minutes, adding an unexpected second intermission. But when the glitch was straightened out, Hollywood Squares veteran Bruce Vilanch, dressed in drag as the mammoth mom of our big-haired heroine Tracy Turnblad, and Todd Susman, as her milquetoast mate Wilbur, picked things up without missing a beat.

"Can you hear me now?" Vilanch ad-libbed into the stage telephone he'd been talking into.

Then things went awry with Wilbur's joke shop, the Har-De-Har Hut: A canister that was supposed to spew streamers misfired.

"Imagine if this were Death of a Salesman," quipped Vilanch, adding, "I can tell you we're not getting out of here at 9:30."

At that, Susman and Vilanch, looking like someone recruited from a drag-queen retirement home, eased into Timeless to Me, a delicious vaudeville number that ends with Susman giving Vilanch a feel.

"He's been doing that to me longer than Plunder Dome," cooed Vilanch. "But then I do have a Renaissance body."

Quirky fun

It's true that Vilanch was not headed home at 9:30. But no one seemed to care that the show ran long and took a left turn for a moment.

This tour, on the road for not quite two months so far, is a tight, high-energy evening of pure joy.

And I'm not sure why. I confess I entered PPAC wondering how a show about big hair could be anything but a bust. Not five minutes into it, I was a believer.

Maybe that's because Hairspray is so quirky, so off-beat, and so able to deal with the still-loaded issue of segregation without sounding preachy, or hitting the audience over the head with its message.

Adding to the eccentric feel are cartoonish sets that look like they were designed for Pee-wee's Playhouse.

Our protagonist is an overweight, out-of-the-loop teen who hangs out with dorky bubble-gum chewing Penny Pingleton. Tracy Turnblad wants nothing more than to dance with heartthrob Link Larkin on the Corny Collins show, the American Bandstand of 1960s Baltimore, produced by Susan Cella's bigotted Velma Von Tussle, the former Miss Baltimore Crabs.

The thing is, Tracy has learned her moves from Seaweed J. Stubbs, one of the groovin' black kids she hangs out with in detention. And she can't understand why the Seaweeds of the world aren't welcomed on TV.

When she finally wins a spot on the show, she's announces to an uptight Baltimore viewership that she wishes every day were "Negro Day." And for her efforts at integration, she ends up in the slammer.

Tracy is no hottie. But in the hands of Carly Jibson, a 19-year-old, 4-foot-10-inch sparkplug, the plucky Miss Turnblad is irrepressible. Jibson, who was discovered while performing in a Michigan theater, is a natural, with a impressive set of pipes and amazing presence for such a little thing, even a little thing stuffed with padding.

She bolts out of bed in the opening moments of the show and takes command in Good Morning Baltimore.

Refreshingly incorrect

Perhaps one reason Hairspray, based on the John Waters cult film of the same name, is such a mega-hit is because it's so refreshingly politically incorrect.

When Seaweed rescues girlfriend Penny, who has been bound to her bed to save her from the "colored" people, he pulls out a switchblade to cut her loose, singing about the benefits of growing up in the ghetto.

And Hairspray isn't afraid to go for bottom-line laughs. Tracy wants her housewife mom to be her agent, but Edna feels she should hire someone with experience.

"Who handled the Gabor Sisters?" Edna asks, then adds: "Who didn't."

The better line comes as the white kids from the TV-show party at Seaweed's.

"If we get any more white people in here," says one of the blacks, "we'll be a suburb."

Stunning performance

Pretty boy Link is far more retiring and not nearly as impressive a belter as Jibson. But then, he's supposed to be the laid-back crooner who takes his time getting over his narcissistic hangups.

The Dynamites, a trio of black soul sisters, are another story. They help push a smoking rendition of Welcome to the '60s over the top.

And Charlotte Crossley, as Seaweed's mom Motormouth Maybelle, is stunning as she urges Tracy to follow her dreams in I Know Where I've Been. Crossley, who looks a little like a chunky Tina Turner in a blond wig, starts out with a tentative caress before letting loose and allowing the tune to soar.

Helping her along is a crack band led by the driving synthesizer of Jim Vukovich, and accented with Rick Hammett's cutting trumpet.

Goofy Penny, played by Sandra Denise, pulls off a remarkable transformation from Plain Jane airhead to slinky sexpot. Jordan Ballard adds little more than whine to the part of Tracy's rival, Amber Von Tussle.

So even if big hair in Baltimore doesn't sound like your thing, my advice is, try it. I guarantee you'll love it.

Hairspray runs through Nov. 16 at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St. Tickets range from $45 to $65. Call 421-2787.

Hairspray Rocks Rochester...Reviews Are in...It's A Hit!
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.

'Hairspray' goes long way in spreading cheer
Musical comedy serves up healthy dose of fun
By Michael Phillips
Tribune theater critic
December 18 2003, 2:00 AM CST

December in Chicago. The city glowers with skies of gray, and the air is filled with that certain hacking sound, on account of several million people sharing the same cold and/or flulike symptoms. But along comes the national tour of "Hairspray" to cheer us up. And it does.

Continuing at the Oriental Theatre through mid-February, the show is one of the few certifiably good musical comedies of recent years. It comes from the 1988 John Waters movie about Tracy Turnblad, an imposingly structured 1962 teenager heck-bent on integrating Baltimore's version of "American Bandstand."

The film was a rare instance of a bad-taste meister going sweet on his fans without going stupid. The stage show, which dominated the Tony Awards earlier this year, is the same success story writ larger.

"Hairspray" has no airs and makes no bones about being a crowd-pleasing hit. It is smoothly engineered and so eager to please it practically invites you over for a milkshake. But it's smarter and quicker-witted than the average Broadway bear, with a hugely appealing Motown-tinged score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

It sounds great on a second hearing. Near-great, anyway: A couple of numbers, "Miss Baltimore Crabs" and "I Know Where I've Been," don't quite justify their place in the civil-rights fantasyland story at hand.

"Hairspray" is too much fun, however, for a sober discussion of its imperfections.

Bruce Vilanch, whom you may know from "Hollywood Squares" and a thousand wisecracks uttered by those who have employed him, headlines as Tracy's mother Edna. This drag role is described in Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's crafty libretto as "a simple housewife of indeterminate girth."

Vilanch takes a while to get going in the role—he doesn't really move funny, or know how to barrel through the more expositionally minded scenes. But by the end, the audience likes him lots.

Opening night in Chicago, at the tail end of "(You're) Timeless to Me," Vilanch slipped in a couple of lovely ad-libs ribbing Mayor Richard Daley's late-night Meigs Field demolition and a line about Skokie's Jewish residents.

Waters' storyline remains relatively intact, with amplifications befitting a tale of big women living out even bigger dreams. Tracy and her thin pal Penny are two of Baltimore's biggest teen fans of "The Corny Collins Show." Tracy auditions for a spot on the show, to the gentle consternation of her folks, laundress Edna and novelty-shopkeeper Wilbur.

The TV show's venal producer, Velma Von Tussle, takes one look at the plus-sized heroine and sneers. But in cahoots with her newfound detention-class friend, Seaweed, Tracy makes a big splash doing the dance craze called "The Madison." Poof: She's a star, with her own mound of newly famous hairsprayed hair, a letch for the hunky Link Larkin and a serious case of the hots for African-American culture.

Vilanch is the star, but the show depends more on whoever's playing Tracy. Here it's Carly Jibson, who is most likable and, to my taste, more relaxed and effective than the role's originator, Marissa Jaret Winokur. In a production that's coming at you every minute the way "Hairspray" does, a human touch is a welcome touch.

For the Chicago engagement Seaweed is being played by our own Chester Gregory II, well known locally for "The Jackie Wilson Story" and other shows. He's a gas and a dazzling dancer, whose splits deserve separate billing.

In a subtler, gum-chewing fashion Sandra Denise's Penny is just as entertaining, embodying the whitest of all white girls, who falls hard for her "black white knight" from the other side of town.

Under the savvy direction of Jack O'Brien "Hairspray" is defiantly old-school in its stagecraft and all the better for it. The show has its saggy passages, to be sure. As in the Waters film, the story runs in small circles near the end, and while the libretto generally works like a charm, there may be one too many fatso insults en route to the mega-happy ending, along with the Special Ed and lesbian jokes.

Yet it's all sort of charming. This is a charming big hit. It does all the work for you, socking across number after number, the best of which are "Welcome to the '60s," "The Big Dollhouse" and the finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat." It's true: You can't. "Hairspray" imagines 1962 Baltimore as one big dance party that was waiting to happen.

Windy City Times

Playwright: music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman, book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan

At: Ford Center at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
Runs through: Feb. 15

John Waters’ 1988 film paid homage to the teen-power movies of the pre-Beatles era. The 2002 musical likewise champions adolescent underdogs, while imposing a distinctly modern spin on its nostalgic roots. It also marks a significant step in the integration of rock ‘n’ roll music with the traditional Musical form.

From Hair (1966) to Rent (1996), marketers seeking to attract Baby-Boom Bucks have hawked their product as the definitive “rock musical”. But composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score is not the same old warbles, tricked out with amplified bass. Nor have scriptwriters Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan simply cobbled a scenario onto a few period ditties, à la Mamma Mia. The songs may replicate the structure and harmonies of their 1962 setting (discerning ears will catch hints of “Peppermint Twist”, “Higher and Higher” and “Mickey’s Monkey”), but they are undeniably original compositions serving a likewise carefully conceived social message.

The plot’s immediate theme is the end of racial segregation on Baltimore television’s “American Bandstand” knockoff. The secondary subtext, however, is intragender rivalry, with the Miss Hairspray contest the battleground for the spoiled Amber Von Tussle, the airheaded Penny Pingleton and our unlikely heroine, the rebellious Tracy Turnblad, whose refusal to succumb to the prejudices of the status quo—including its scorn of chubby girls—leads to the liberation of her peers, the fulfillment of her parents’ dreams, and the affections of her chosen boy-babe. You GO, girl!

The cast of this touring production embrace their archetypes with gleeful exuberance, quick-stepping through Jerry Mitchell’s athletic dances at a pace to make Jennifer Beals’ flashdancing acrobatics look like a skater’s waltz. Hometown favorite Chester Gregory II, on Christmas leave from the Broadway company, distinguishes himself in the role of the supple Seaweed J. Stubbs, while Blake Hammond portrays a variety of patriarchal windbags. But it ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings, and the plus-sized Carly Jibson’s Tracy dominates every scene in this 2-1/2 hour show, flanked by the ample Bruce Vilanch as a formidable Mrs. Turnblad. Together they constitute as impressive a pair of bodacious belters as ever earned their happily-ever-afters.

Review: 'Hairspray' lives up to Broadway version
Rohan Preston
Star Tribune
Published 02/18/2004

The big question riding on Bruce Vilanch's shoulders was not about his comic timing, his barrel-like girth or even if those 1960s get-ups in "Hairspray" make him careen around the stage a little too much like a tortoise with shiny carapace.

No, it was whether he and the show could live up to the Broadway original, which turned a stylized after-school cartoon special into a fun, instructive Tony-winning musical about imperfect people trying to perfect America.

After the triumphant, clap-along opening of 'Hairspray' on Tuesday at Minneapolis' Historic Orpheum Theatre, the answer is -- back-up singers please -- cooingly yes.

True, Vilanch does not have the physical dexterity of Harvey Fierstein, who padded up for the part in New York. And his voice is not as distinctive as the industrial instrument that Fierstein lets out every time he opens his mouth. But Vilanch is both warm mother hen and uncured ham, adding to the mirth and moral of the show with his own hysterical, a-chronological ad-libs about Janet Jackson, St. Louis Park and, in one toot-tooting number, the Minnesota Twins.

He has more than a little help from a cast that includes phenom Carly Jibson, who plays Edna's teapot-shaped daughter, and supporting players Austin Miller, Terron Brooks and Sandra Denise.

"Hairspray," based on John Water's 1988 film, seems almost quaint at a time when America is wrestling with gay marriage, cloning and weapons of mass destruction. Yet it resonates because it has a recurrent theme in our history -- scorned people wanting in.

In this case, it is 1962 in Baltimore and "The Corny Collins Show" is all the rage. Tubby teen Tracy Turnblad (Jibson) and her average-sized friend Penny (Denise) audition for the TV show on which Link Larkin (Miller) dances. The young women are spurned by the show's bigoted producer, Velma Von Tussle (Susan Cella).

Thrown in school detention because of her hairstyle, Tracy learns a dance from some of the black kids who dominate that room. She uses it to get a berth on "Corny Collins." She plans a surprise integration of the show, which lands her, and all the progressive types, in jail.

Written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, "Hairspray" seems to say that all problems of the past can be danced away. Its integrationist message resonates, even if the blacks in the piece have so little agency in their own liberation.

The staging by director Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell isslick, energetic and, even overproduced, coming at you as an endless parade of dance and costumes. (Everyone in the '60s must have had terrible headaches, judging by those awful clothes.)

The cast is effervescent, with fresh-faced Jibson a better Tracy than her Broadway counterpart, Marissa Jaret Winokur.

The Supremes-like Dynamites (Deidre Lang, Nraca and Sabrina N. Scherff) are just that: dynamite. Songs such as "Welcome to the '60s" and "You Can't Stop the Beat' are memorable, as are Vilanch's 'Timeless to Me,' a duet featuring Vilanch and Todd Susman, who plays Edna's husband.

The moral of the story would be summed up later by George Clinton: Dancing, to paraphrase the rainbow-haired funskter, will set your body free.

'Hairspray' holds up well with its message and lively music
By Judith Newmark
St Louis Post-Dispatch Theater Critic

A mother (Bruce Vilanch)-daughter (Carly Jibson) shopping trip brings mom out of her shell.

"Hairspray," the winner of the 2003 Tony Award for best musical, has grown out from its roots.

The first mainstream success for counterculture filmmaker John Waters, it has turned into the new "Grease" - a teen-powered show with a Top 40 beat and a family-friendly message about acceptance.

In fact, it centers on one of the friendliest, happiest families ever to grace the American stage: the Turnblads of Baltimore, circa 1962.

The teenage daughter, Tracy (Carly Jibson), is a big, beautiful doll, a bundle of energy who's not afraid to stand up for principles like tolerance and fair play. But then why shouldn't she be a great kid? Her parents have brought her up with plenty of love and support.

The Turnblads have a wonderful marriage. True, they are a little on the odd side. Wilbur, a would-be inventor, ekes out a living at his gag-gifts shop while his shy wife hides in their apartment upstairs, doing other people's laundry. Nevertheless, as they explain in a show-stopping duet, their love is timeless.

And both of them are men.

Sort of.

Unlike "La Cage aux Folles," in which a gay man tries to resolve a sticky situation by dressing as his partner's female wife, "Hairspray" centers on a heterosexual marriage. But the wife always is played by a man. It's not so much camp as a cousin to the English comedy tradition in which men dress as women for laughs.

In the touring company that opens at the Fox this week, Todd Susman, the veteran character actor from St. Louis, plays Wilbur. The role of Edna, his beloved and enormous wife, is played by Bruce Vilanch, the comedy writer and performer best recognized as the outrageous, fast-quipping queen on "Hollywood Squares." Of course, he shaved off his leonine beard for the part. He claims that he tried to persuade the producers that it could work, but Edna as a bearded lady demanded more tolerance for human quirks than even "Hairspray" could accommodate. You may have caught the big depilation, which took place on "Live With Regis and Kelly." At the sight of his bare face, Vilanch says, Kelly Ripa looked so appalled that he thought Kathie Lee Gifford must have popped up behind him.

As Edna, Vilanch has big wedgies to fill. Divine, the late underground drag queen who starred in some of Waters' most shocking movies, created the character on film. (The movie propelled his costar, the then-unknown Ricki Lake, to celebrity.) Harvey Fierstein won the Tony for his portrayal of Edna on Broadway.

Could a woman play Edna? Absolutely not, Vilanch insists. The show includes jokes based on a man in the role; for example, that romantic duet, "Timeless to Me," is arranged for Edna to sing the lower part, Wilbur the higher. But more important, he says, a man as Edna "keeps that John Waters edge" in the show.

The frankly hilarious appearance of Edna - who is about a million miles from the glamorous transvestites that Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo portrayed in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" - also includes the audience in more than a joke. It makes us complicit in the "Hairspray" theme: acceptance of self, acceptance of other people.

On its shiny pastel surface, "Hairspray" doesn't look like a message musical. With its lively songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, choreographer Jerry Mitchell's sharp dance numbers, David Rockwell's cartoon-like sets and especially Paul Huntley's hilarious "hair-hopper" wigs, it looks like pure fun. And it is.

But Tracy, the spunky heroine, takes on prejudices regarding both race and size. She wants to perform on a dance-party TV show, and she does; being the heaviest girl on the set doesn't keep her from becoming the most popular one, winning the cute boy away from her snooty, skinny blond rival. And - with the help of her best friend, Penny, a white girl, and Penny's secret boyfriend, Seaweed, who is black - she leads a comic but successful campaign to integrate the dance show, too.

In one of Vilanch's favorite scenes, Tracy even helps her mother come out of her shell. Thanks to her sudden TV celebrity, the owner of a plus-sized dress shop wants to give Tracy a whole new wardrobe to show off on camera. She persuades her mom to go to the store with her, and when they emerge in matching, Pucci-style prints, Edna positively glows with happiness.

It's a wonderful moment. Although most teenage girls and their mothers have fun shopping together, money worries and anxiety about appearances have denied Edna and Tracy that pleasure. "Sometimes I think Edna hasn't been out of that apartment in years," Vilanch says.

But why shouldn't she go where she pleases? She's a hard worker, a devoted wife, a loving mother. She's got nothing to feel embarrassed about, and the new-dress number shows us exactly when Edna figures that out for herself. "That's what 'Hairspray' is all about,' Vilanch says, "accepting other people not in spite of everything but because of who they are."

With its visual and emotional jelly-bean palette, there's nothing subtle about "Hairspray" - including the message it strives to deliver. Just in case anybody missed it, though, it also comes through crystal-clear in a song that Seaweed's mother, a DJ called Motormouth Maybelle (Charlotte Crossley), sings. "You've got to love yourself from the inside-out," Motormouth reminds the teenagers at a bleak moment, giving them the heart to go on with their campaign.

The big number in "Hairspray" is its high-powered finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat." (The song's title seems to refer to the history of racial integration as well as to music, although the audience, more or less hypnotically raised to its dancing feet, is probably unable to consider that until after the curtain falls.) But Susman thinks that Motormouth's lyric is the heart of the show, and the reason he predicts a long life for it in years to come.

"Hairspray" has a built-in audience among people with their presets on oldies stations. But thanks to its larger message, Susman thinks they'll feel very comfortable bringing their children or grandchildren to see the show with them. The Turnblads, it's true, may be an unusual family - but they're a happy one. Plenty of us are a lot like them.

By Judith Newmark
St; Louis Post-Dispatch Theater Critic

Bright, loud and full of sass, "Hairspray" bursts into the Fox Theatre with all the style you'd expect of a show that boasts a slew of Tony Awards, among them best musical.

But sweetness? Well, yeah. On top of everything else, it's really sweet.

The show opened on Tuesday to a packed house that included its songwriters, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. After the performance, composer Shaiman stopped by the orchestra pit for an admiring look around the lavish theater. He said he'd been there the year before, when he toured with Billy Crystal, but didn't remember just how spectacular the decor was.

The show onstage had been pretty spectacular in its own right.

Based on John Waters' movie of the same name, "Hairspray" is set in Baltimore 1962, a segregated city where the loving if oddball Turnblad family ekes out its meager living. Tracy (Carly Jibson), the overweight teenage daughter, loves to dance; she dreams of appearing as a regular on a local teen dance-party show. Not only does Tracy achieve her goal, she leads a campaign to integrate the program. In the process, she wins the cute boy of her dreams (Austin Miller) and gives a big dose of self-confidence to her shy, enormous mother, played by the hilarious Bruce Vilanch.

That's right. A man plays Edna Turnblad, who is emphatically a woman. It's one of the many jokes tucked into this show, which delivers its message about accepting yourself and accepting others in a bright pastel gift-wrap of music, wild costumes and laughter.

Vilanch, who as Edna constitutes one of the broader jokes him/herself, makes plenty of others, including a handful of St. Louis references he pops into his big number, "Timeless to Me." Maybe he got some tips from his singing partner, Todd Susman, who plays Tracy's loving, loony dad. He comes from St. Louis, after all.

But other jokes are more subtle, especially the show's tributes to musical-theater history. "Hairspray" gives a shrewd wink to "Sweet Charity," "Gypsy" and, naturally, to another great show about teens, "Bye Bye Birdie."

But Shaiman and Wittman save their fondest tributes to the music that "Hairspray" celebrates, the Top 40 sounds of the pre-Beatles era.

The extravaganza "I Can Hear Bells" has lots of fun with pop's "Going to the Chapel" tradition while it simultaneously, sweetly reminds you of how a simple touch can evoke a world of romance when you're in your teens. "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" sounds like a lot of songs you've heard before. Or maybe, if you're a teenager or her mother, like a lot of conversations that you've had. A Supremes-like trio called the Dynamites - Deidre Lang, Nraca and Sabrina N. Scherff - score with a red-hot number, "Welcome to the '60s." Choreographer Jerry Miller comes up with moves that, like the sound, look fresh while maintaining the mood of a bygone era.

Vilanch is a riot, and Jibson's a dynamo who dances like a ball of fire and belts like a Broadway baby. But they're hardly alone. Besides Susman, the slick company includes Austin Miller as the boy of Tracy's dream, a lithe dancer with rock-star moves; Terron Brooks as the footloose Seaweed and Charlotte Crossley as his wise, wordy mom (she leads the ensemble in the big, spiritual-inflected message song); Sandra Denise as Tracy's big-hearted, tiny-brained pal; and Troy Britton Johnson as the hipster DJ who hosts the TV show. As the scheming blonde villainesses, Jordan Ballard and Susan Cella are too over-the-top to pose any serious competition to a powerhouse like Tracy, whose heart's in the right place and whose feet are heading there fast.

People sometimes ask why shows can't just be entertaining, why they have to mean something. "Hairspray" proves it's not an either/or proposition.

Riverfront Times Mar 17, 2004
You'll Laugh, You'll Coif
Hairspray is a lean, mean entertaining machine

In the opening scene of the deliriously cyclonic Hairspray, which is currently testing the very foundations of the Fox Theatre, the curtain rises to reveal a corpulent teenager lying in bed. Or is she? After a moment you note that her bed is vertical, not horizontal. The scene has been imaginatively staged as if the audience is looking down from the ceiling, thus creating an optical illusion. As the evening plays out, one realizes that the entire musical is an optical illusion. A show about flabby women doesn't have an ounce of fat on it. Hairspray is a lean, mean entertaining machine.

Based on the 1988 film written and directed by John Waters, the fairy tale of a plot is set in Baltimore in June 1962, in a perky-slim world measured by Gidget, Metrecal, Debbie Reynolds and segregation. "Is there no pity for a teen who's trying to fit in?" asks sixteen-year-old butterball Tracy Turnblad, whose only goal is to dance her chubby little heart out on a TV show. By the time all is resolved, the indefatigable Tracy succeeds in integrating that dance show and capturing the heart of its Troy Donahue look-alike. "Isn't that too cool?" she asks with the innocence of a plump Cinderella. You bet it is. And surprising, too. For despite all the acclaim that has been heaped on Hairspray, including eight Tony Awards last June, you have to see it with your own eyes -- you have to be swept along on the tidal wave of its relentless momentum -- to fully appreciate its infinite capacity for nonstop fun.

One senses that director Jack O'Brien's key challenge was to inspire his creative staff to wild extremes without allowing them to overreach into unforgivably bad taste. Words like camp and kitsch affix themselves like carbuncles to Waters' films. But this production is high-tech glitzy without lapsing into crude garishness; there's not a pink flamingo in sight.

Jerry Mitchell's bright, smiling, yet rigorous choreography leaves the viewer exhausted; one can only imagine how it leaves the dancers. The witty script by Mark O'Donnell and that sage veteran Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers) delivers solid laughs. Alas, the pulsating music score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is not great; it's merely perfect. The tunes sound as if they might have been written for Lesley Gore or the Shirelles, but the orchestrations are straight from the 21st century.

All credit to the producers for the sheer bravado of having cast the two leading roles with inexperienced, yet delightful, stage actors. In her professional debut as Tracy, the sensational Carly Jibson makes the Energizer bunny look like a candidate for the old hare's home. Jibson is incapable of merely walking across the stage; it's as if her shoes contain mini-springs. Try to envision Roseanne Barr as a teenager who sings like Brenda Lee, and you're warming up to Jibson's pudgy charms.

As Edna Turnblad, Tracy's endearing blob of a mother, Bruce Vilanch is equally beguiling. When Edna first appears, Vilanch seems to be merely going through the arm-flailing motions of playing a role in drag (and a fat suit, to boot). But as the evening progresses, Bruce and Edna merge in a subtle, winning way. You actually begin to care about Edna's feelings; where did that come from? It came from Vilanch, the only person onstage imposing enough to play against the show's driving beat. He takes his time, savors his pauses, and the audience relishes those catch-a-breath pit stops.

But the entire cast excels. As Edna's husband, former St. Louisan Todd Susman (who might have modeled his stoic portrayal after Professor Irwin Corey) is a perfect foil for the big gals in his family. Sandra Denise is a bedazzling knockout as Tracy's skinny pal Penny. Her progression from spastic geek to sensuous woman is one of the evening's joys.

Although Hairspray is so slick that even the playbill paper stock seems to be shinier than usual, the show still finds time to wedge in comments about race relations. But its most serious message concerns the need for a person to be comfortable inside his or her own skin -- regardless of how much skin there is. As Edna finally comes to realize in the climactic song, "You can't stop my happiness/'Cause I like the way I am...If you don't like the way I look/Well, I just don't give a damn."

Like all the show's characters, black and white alike, Hairspray too wants to belong. It wants to be included in that pantheon of teen-oriented musicals that it seeks to emulate. In Hairspray's set design one detects a nod to Bye Bye Birdie; in a key plot point, a little something borrowed from Grease. And of course there's the obligatory John Travolta-inspired dance contest. But pack it all into a bright new bubblegum wrapper, and suddenly this musical seems as fresh as a just-opened can of aerosol spray.

St Louis
Steve Allen- KFUO-FM

Hairspray has made it to St. Louis and the Fox Theatre and it’s a treat indeed. Like the previous years’ Best Musical Tony winner, Thoroughly Modern Millie, this one’s just for fun. Sure there’s a bit of a message but it gets lost in the glitter and lights and rousing musical numbers.

Acceptance is probably the key to Hairspray’s message. Our heroine is a large girl who is trying to be accepted as one of the “popular” kids on a local dance party show while she in turn is trying to get that show to accept the black teenagers from the Baltimore area.

Carly Jibson is Tracy, the bouncy, loving, effervescent teen with heart and hope to match her size. What a delightful performance. Tackling the role of the mother, made famous by Harvey Firestein, is one of the funniest men on the face of the planet, Bruce Vilanch. Known principally as a comedy writer for numerous comedians and even awards shows, Mr. Vilanch has proven himself a worthy funny man himself on various talk shows and “Hollywood Squares.” Now he “owns” this role in Hairspray. Talk about worth the price of admission- he most definitely is.

Other stand outs include Austin Miller as the love of Tracy’s life, St. Louisan Todd Susman as the father, the trio of girls who make up a Supremes-like group, Tony Britton Johnson as the oily DJ and a load of supporting actors, dancers and singers that really make Hairspray rock.

The score by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Mr. Shaiman won’t go down in history like scores from such past Tony winners as Kiss Me, Kate or the complexities of a Sondheim musical, but it certainly suits the venue and is more memorable than a lot of scores we’ve heard in the past. The book, based on the John Waters movie, is cute and takes you back to the 60’s in style.

Sit back and enjoy. Don’t dwell on any of the messages- they seem superfluous compared to the fun everyone is having on stage. Hairspray takes you back and brings you pure singing and dancing entertainment spiced with the incomparable Bruce Vilanch. Don’t miss it as it plays at the Fox through March 21st. This is Steve Allen with a look at the theatre scene around St. Louis for Classic 99.

Deaf Jam
Wiggy Hairspray is pleasing to the eye, but hard on the ear.

It was too loud.

That was, I'm afraid, my prevailing impression of Hairspray. It was so loud that periodically I stuck my fingers in my ears. So loud that when a performer began one of those songs that starts low and intense, I found myself cowering in anticipation of the inevitable build. So loud that by intermission I was longing for the evening to be over, and the next morning my ears still felt overstimulated. The soprano voices pierced like needles. The group numbers felt like an assault. The bass seemed to be hammering against my breastbone.

And it was a shame, because Hairspray is a terrific show. As you probably know by now, it's about Tracy Turnblad (Carly Jibson), a rotund little teenager in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of dancing on local television on The Corny Collins Show. Despite the jeers of slender contestants, she puffs up her bouffant hairdo, struts into the studio and manages to do just that. She also wins the love of teen heartthrob and Elvis wannabe Link Larkin (Austin Miller). In support of her theory that the teen dance world should be all-inclusive, with every day "Negro day," Tracy bridges the gap between the bubblegum '50s and the awakening '60s by integrating the show with the help of wise, humorous, indefatigable -- and indefatigably rhyming -- Motormouth Maybelle (Charlotte Crossley).

Hairspray is knowing and ironic, but it also has a heart of the sweetest, purest marshmallow. It's consistently on the side of the underdog and the outsider. The subplot concerns Edna, Tracy's mother, who's even larger than her daughter. A depressed hausfrau, she takes in laundry for a living and dreams of a career in outsized-dress design. Harvey Fierstein won a Tony for the role in New York; it's knowingly played in Denver by Bruce Vilanch. Tracy's father is a tiredly humorous little sparrow of a man, physically dwarfed by his wife. And Tracy has a confidante, Penny (Sandra Denise), another school outcast, who's far less savvy and sure of herself than her friend.

There's a cartoon-like brightness to the entire production. David Rockwell's sets are eye-pleasing and clever, as is Kenneth Posner's cheery lighting. The costumes, by William Ivey Long -- who also created costumes for The Producers -- are designed for dance and very witty, right down to the stripes on Tracy's prison-issue shoes. The wigs and hairdos, courtesy of Paul Huntley, do the show's title ample justice. But best of all are the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman: There's the bounciness of "Good Morning Baltimore"; the novelty song "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now"; the dopey, delightful "I Can Hear the Bells"; and Motormouth's sassy encomium to herself, "Big, Blonde and Beautiful," her bluesy "I Know Where I've Been," and the infectiously pulsating "You Can't Stop the Beat." Many songs in contemporary musicals are filled with allusions to well-known scores because the composers have no discernable style of their own, but Shaiman and lyricist Wittman take the sounds of the era, set them spinning and make them fresh.

Nineteen-year-old Carly Jibson is a tiny, roly-poly girl with a huge and delightful voice. As Tracy, she's jumpy and jiggly, constantly in motion. Sometimes I wished she'd slow down a bit, and when he does -- for a few seconds in the act-two prison scene -- she's really quite touching, while still very funny. Vilanch is an inspired mugger: Some of his long, long takes and exaggerated expressions bring down the house. In the far less showy role of Edna's husband, Todd Susman more than holds his own. In fact, he's one of the best things on stage. He gives Wilbur not depth, exactly, but real warmth and feeling. When Susman and Vilanch sing their love song, "Timeless to Me," you want it to go on and on. And it pretty much does, with some funny localized ad libs thrown in, including a well-deserved jab at Marilyn Musgrave.

As Lark Lincoln, Miller gives a sympathetic reading of a sympathetic role. He's extraordinarily light on his feet, and it's a tribute both to the performers and to the choreography of Jerry Mitchell (which is crisp and snappy throughout) that his suppleness and grace somehow complement Jibson's rtless, puppy-like energy. These actors work beautifully together, and they make each other look good. There are many splendid voices here, Miller's being one of them. Terron Brooks, who plays Seaweed, has a great baritone and a joyous way of dancing. Crossley is gorgeous as Motormouth, a nurturing presence with a hell of a way of putting across a song. The smirky, preening Corny Collins is a standard figure -- though here he does have his heart in the right place -- but he anchors much of the proceedings, and Troy Britton Johnson plays him well.

There's a fine line to walk, given the nature of this production, but I did think some of the acting was distractingly broad and hammy. Joanna Glushak was over the top in several of her roles, though she did have some amusing moments as the prison guard. Also exaggerated were Sandra Denise as Penny and Susan Cella as the vindictive Velma Von Tussle. Jordan Ballard was fine as scheming mber, and I think she's an excellent singer, but I dreaded her numbers, as well as Denise's, because their high notes were among the evening's most physically painful experiences.

Which gets me back to the original complaint. Hairspray is supposed to be a loud show, but the sound distortions did an injustice to the singing and rendered most of the lyrics incomprehensible. I'm not into pleasure-pain, but I imagine the exquisite push-pull between these two sensations is better explored via leather paraphernalia than musical theater.

You can't stop 'Hairspray' beat
National tour walks a delicate line between sweetness, raunch
By John Moore
Denver Post Theater Critic
Friday, March 26, 2004 -

'Spray the word: "Hairspray" is a great, big bundle of joy. There's not enough aerosol in the world that could hold you back from shaking your fanny muscles to one of the best pop musical scores ever written.

The national touring company has come to Denver, and it is so warm-hearted, it is blowing a hole in the ozone layer above the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

Which is not to say "Hairspray" is a perfect musical. The stage adaptation of John Waters' cult-favorite film concerns a portly 16-year- old girl who turns winning a spot on a local dance show into a quest to integrate Baltimore in 1962.

It is a smart and irreverent comic-book fairy tale with a heart of gold, but that heart beats with the blood of a political satire that is both risqué and occasionally raunchy. So if the tricky tone isn't exactly right each night out, its incongruous influences might make it tilt either toward impossibly sweet or gratuitously inappropriate.

Wednesday's opening night at the Buell Theatre featured insanely infectious choreography, a gallery of terrific performances, delightfully creative set pieces and hilarious costuming. I mean, if you can't enjoy yourself at this show, you'd have to be, say, Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (and her only because matronly "Hairspray" star Bruce Vilanch singled out Colorado's same-sex marriage castigator for fourth-wall-crumbling ridicule - to the delight of the audience).

Still, because of the indelicate way in which the audience is bludgeoned with double-entendres, you could sense the evening still hanging in the balance right up until the first beat of the climactic number, "You Can't Stop the Beat."

But two beats in, you know why this tune already has won its place among the great finishing songs in Broadway history. This is a heart-pounding celebration that does everything you could ever ask of one song: It ties up every loose end with wit and warmth, it clarifies the messages of the tolerance and racial harmony, and it gets every aforementioned fanny muscle in the house up and moving.

"Hairspray" is not as innocuous as it first appears. Tracy Turnblad (Carly Jibson) wants badly to dance on the Corny Collins show, but is oblivious to the fact her size eliminates her from consideration before she ever even swivels a hip.

Not only does she win the day, she wins the boy - and in a most a welcome and revolutionary way. The impossibly handsome Link Larkin (Austin Miller) is pretty decent for a pretty boy, so he does not require the entire evening to realize that yes, he can love a chubby girl. Rather, Link falls for our heroine almost immediately after seeing her move on the dance floor. When has that ever happened on any stage before?

When "Hairspray" becomes about Tracy and Link against the world, mirrored by the budding interracial romance of their pals Penny (Sandra DeNise) and Seaweed (Terron Brooks), "Hairspray" moves into the Hall of Fame.

Not coincidentally, these are the four best performances. Jibson is a great comedian, a physical gymnast and a knockout singer. But she could not succeed without the generous believability of Miller as Link, whose affection for Tracy must - and does - come across as genuine. That Miller is a lithe dancer with a Harry Connick smile and a great voice helps. Brooks is a sensational dancer, and DeNise gets the most thunderous laugh of the night during "Without Love," and I only wish I could reprint the lyric for you here.

Vilanch is playful enough in the the crucial gender-bending role of Tracy's gigantic mother, Edna, which was immortalized by Divine on film. But he never fully loses himself in his character, so you never forget this is a man playing a woman. But he brings down the house with husband Wilbur (Todd Susman) on "Timeless to Me," during which the "Hollywood Squares" comedian jokes about everything from Musgrave to Janet Jackson. I'm not a fan of a Colorado stand-up routine busting out in the middle of a Baltimore-based musical, but the audience simply went wild when Wilbur had his arms around his wife's chest and Edna said, "Wilbur, it's your childhood dream come true - You're in Colorado, playing with the Rockies!"

The weakness of the touring production is that it has become something of a parody of its Broadway parent, with too many characters delivering lines with exaggerated and knowing naiveté, which the Broadway cast steadfastly avoided. It dilutes the book's razor-sharp irony and entendres.

Still, "Hairspray" is a terrific time. The score by Marc Shaiman ("South Park") and Scott Wittman reflects the musical innocence of the era, incorporating Motown, R&B, power-pop, and even an old-fashioned soft-shoe.

"Hairspray" may not change race relations in America, but it already has changed musical theater forever. And like a good layer of aerosol, it has staying power.

U-San Bernardino County Sun
'Hairspray' keeps moving
By Evan Henerson
Theater Critic

Thursday, July 22, 2004 - Let's hear it for the misfits, the outsiders and for those who are just plain naughty.

"Hairspray" audiences, meet your new musical comedy stars. Say hello to Tracy Turnblad, a portly and squeaky-voiced teen who just wants a place to dance with the partner of her choice, regardless of his skin color. Meet her gum-chewing - and far-less-fleet-of-foot - best friend, Penny Lou Pingleton. And a hearty welcome to Tracy's formidable mom Edna, from whom Tracy gets her big heart as well as her girth.

The national tour of "Hairspray" has arrived at the Pantages in a swirl of light, color and dance-happy music. Once this peppy engine gets going - from the first drumbeats of its opening number - it neither stops nor even cools. And why should it? The story is based on a film by that cheerful freakazoid John Waters; the music comes from the mind of Marc Shaiman, who scored the "South Park" movie; and director Jack O'Brien ("The Full Monty") is one of the steadiest and most inventive musical-theater hands in the business.

And those ladies? Stand back!

Marissa Jaret Winokur, who can bring wide eyes and a lopsided grin with the best of them, figured to pocket the show; she already took home the Tony award for playing Tracy on Broadway. Playing Edna, plus-sized Bruce Vilanch, the jester/scribe of the Academy Awards shows was another slam dunk because ... well ... because he's Bruce Vilanch. In drag! At Wednesday's opening night, during the offbeat love duet "Timeless to Me" with Todd Susman, Vilanch was firing off Linda Ronstadt and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gags, thereby cracking up people both on stage and off.

Sandra DeNise, meanwhile, elevates the sidekick role of Tracy's best friend Penny into the stratosphere. In DeNise's hands, the character is eternally optimistic, endearingly gawky - and a complete fuzz brain. It's no cakewalk, by the way, to make a performer who moves very well come off as a double-left-footed dork. Under the able guidance of choreographer Jerry Mitchell, DeNise does it. She's about the only one who gets off that easily. Everyone else in Mitchell's ensemble - Winokur included - is shimmying and jiving.

There's a social conscience in this happily offbeat show. The year is 1962, the location Baltimore, and the first order of business for Tracy once she infiltrates "The Corny Collins Show" (a Dick Clark-ish program with a panel of teen dancers) is "integration." This makes sense to Tracy, since
it was her black detention mate Seaweed Stubbs (played by Terron Brooks) who taught her the new dance moves to begin with.

Standing in the way of Tracy's dreams are the Von Tussle dames: mom Velma (Susan Cella), the mean-spirited producer of "The Corny Collins Show" and former Miss Baltimore Crabs. Velma's daughter, Amber (Jordan Ballard), is not only the most likely candidate for Miss Teen Baltimore, she's also Tracy's chief rival for the affections of the show's resident teen hunk, Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison).

O'Brien and librettists Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan aren't interested in conflicts. Character clashes and setbacks zip by, making way for another dance number, another display of David Rockwell's eye- catching sets. In Rockwell's pink and pastel landscape, Supremes emerge live from posters, and faces and dancing silhouettes lurk behind every vanity or teen girl's bedroom. Baltimore should always look this cheery.

The musical numbers are dynamite. "Good Morning Baltimore" has Tracy emerging from a vertical bed, stepping outside and greeting "the flasher who lives next door (and) the bum on his barroom stool." In the no- less-upbeat "Welcome to the '60s," a newly famous Tracy gets her mom a makeover. And the show's closing number, "You Can't Stop the Beat" matches the energy's opening, note for note. With "South Park," Shaiman and
co-lyricist Scott Wittman have demonstrated they can write racier stuff. This score keeps things up-tempo, throwing in bursts of irreverence at every available opportunity.

And irreverence is good. Just ask that petite yet chubby revolutionary, Tracy Turnblad, as engaging and deserving a musical comedy heroine as the stage has to offer.


Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday; through Sept. 5.
Tickets: $27 to $87. Call (213) 365-3500.
In a nutshell: Happy and irreverent, "Hairspray" is dominated by the ladies - and by the guy who dresses like a lady.


(Pantages Theater, Los Angeles; 2,750 seats; $87 top)

Broadway LA presents a musical in two acts, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Whitman, book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the film written by John Waters. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Choreography, Jerry Mitchell.

Tracy Turnblad - Marissa Jaret Winokur
Edna Turnblad - Bruce Vilanch
Corny Collins - Troy Britton Johnson
Amber Von Tussle - Jordan Ballard
Seaweed - Terron Brooks
Velma Von Tussle - Susan Cella
Motormouth Maybelle - Charlotte Crossley
Penny Pingleton - Sandra Denise
Female authority figure - Joanna Glushak
Male authority figure - Blake Hammond
Link Larkin - Matthew Morrison
Wilbur Turnblad - Todd Susman
Little Inez - Kianna Underwood

"Hairspray" has arrived in Los Angeles polished and shiny, a sparkling production that floods the spacious Pantages with, to sum it up in a word, fun. The songs, the book and the star have already been rewarded with their Tonys and this ensemble arrives fresh and perky -- after traipsing through secondary markets in the East and Midwest -- with no dip in quality from the Broadway incarnation.
The dazzling choreography, the multihued costumes, the sets of pastel and neon colors and a score that's girl-group and matinee-idol pure provide a foundation for several gloriously funny performances. The ensemble executes the intricate dance steps with precision and a soulful strut, making the most of gimmicky but fun backdrops, and convincingly alternating between the moves of professional hoofers and teens at a TV show doing the Madison.

Even the clunky sound system oddly aids this production, making the 13-piece orchestra sound as if it were crammed into the speakers, the way classic Phil Spector recordings did from the period, which is the source of inspiration for songs such as "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" and "Welcome to the '60s."

Despite a plot concerned with desegregation in 1962 Baltimore, "Hairspray" isn't about to prompt any new dialogues on race relations. It should, however, be a case study for legit producers who don't always deliver the Broadway goods when hitting the road: This company not only matches the production values and perfs, but Bruce Vilanch takes Edna Turnblad in a direction that's campier and funnier than Harvey Fierstein's sentimental Tony-winning turn.

The star, though, is never in doubt. Marissa Jaret Winokur is a ball of energy as Tracy Turnblad, a pudgy outcast who fills her time away from high school watching the "American Bandstand"-ish "Corny Collins Show," learning the current dances and falling in love with the terps. She auditions after a dancer announces she'll be gone "for nine months." Tracy is greeted with abuse from the show regulars; Collins, however, sees her as a kid who resembles the kids at home watching and hires her. (The Collins show is sponsored by Ultra Clutch hairspray, hence the title).

As a feud develops with the jealous beauty queen-in-training Amber Von Tussle (Jordan Ballard), Tracy wins the heart of Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison), the one cast member conflicted by "Hairspray's" key plot points: peer pressure, race and the path to fame. Tracy's love of "race" music fuels her ambition to bring together blacks and whites on national television, which leads to friendships, legal troubles, a jail break and, of course, a better world.

Tracy's journey begins at home, where mother Edna takes in laundry and dad Wilbur (Todd Susman) runs the Har de Har Hut novelty shop downstairs. They endorse their daughter's every move and share an idyllic marital bond that's touching and amusing.

In their big number together, the waltz-timed "Timeless to Me," Susman emphasizes Wilbur's demure side and allows Edna/Vilanch to carry the tune and the humor. Vilanch, whose talk-singing grew more confident through the night, has added new jokes about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg and Linda Ronstadt to their duet, and inflated the level of camp. Not only does it work, it's funnier than the original.

Tracy's best friend, Penny Pingleton (Sandra Denise), is the over-the-top dimwit who bridges the racial divide and stirs up a romance with Seaweed (Terron Brooks), the son of the producer of Corny Collins' once-a-month Negro Day, Motormouth Maybelle (Charlotte Crossley). Maybelle owns a record shop that becomes a center of integration -- "If one more white person walks in, this will become a suburb," one shopper notes -- and sublimely, John Waters and the adapters of his film pose a query about peaceful coexistence that's still being asked in America today.

Crossley undergoes a stylistic transference in her two numbers, delivering "Big, Blonde & Beautiful" in the brassy style of 1950s blues shouters; in the second act, after the commotion has landed the entourage in jail, Crossley brings a more soulful, gospel-infused interpretation to "I Know Where I've Been," releasing her inner Sam Cooke to intimate a social step in a new direction.

Troy Britton Johnson's portrayal of Corny Collins borders on the confusing. Clearly he has an on-camera personality that's big, bold and perfect for the era, though when he expresses personal outrage with the shenanigans of show producer, and Amber's mom, Velma Von Tussle (Susan Cella), his shift in tone never feels fully sincere.

Cella has the stage mother bit down pat and her finely delivered "(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs" is one of the show's funniest numbers.

Brooks' Seaweed is too wide-eyed at times, but as one of the most visible dancers, he is riveting.

With: Bryan Crawford, Tammy - Lauren Kling, Michael Cunio, Cameron Adams, Bryan West, Joe Abraham, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Gretchen Bieber, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Jesse Johnson, Deidre Lang, Anastacia McCleskey, Nraca, Sabrina N. Scherff, Jackie Sieden, Jason Snow, Leonard E. Sullivan, Brent Davin Vance, Donna Vivino, Willis White.

Sets, David Rockwell; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Steve C. Kennedy; musical director, Jim Vukovich; production stage manager, Kimberly Fisk. Opened, reviewed July 21, 2004. Runs through Sept. 5. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.