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.