Don’t let the bee-hive hairdos scare you: The long-awaited musical is pure fun!
Teenager Tracy Turnblad doesn’t set out to change the world in the hit musical “Hairspray,” now playing at Detroit’s Masonic Temple Theatre. It’s just that she can’t understand why young people of all sizes, shapes and colors can’t shake their booties on a Baltimore-based TV dance show called “The Corny Collins Show.”
What the passionate youngster doesn’t realize, of course, is that the exclusion of black kids from the popular program wasn’t anything personal. They WERE allowed to strut their stuff once a month on Negro Night, after all. Producer Velma Von Tussle was simply echoing life – and her own prejudices – as they existed in the years immediately prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But the times they were a-changing. And as theatergoers at the opening night performance April 27 discovered: Never stand in the way of a big white girl with a big heart and even bigger hair – especially one who has her heart set on becoming Miss Teenage Hairspray of 1962!
Based on the 1988 cult classic film by John Waters, the message of this effervescent production is one that should strike a chord with many of us who, as teenagers, often felt left out of the mainstream. Not only were “children of color” often ridiculed or excluded from events, so too were those of us who were too skinny, too chunky, too smart, too awkward or too gay.
Unlike a lot of us, however, a very determined – and very pink – Tracy has the chutzpah to grab life by the gonads and go for the gusto – despite what other people think of her!
Tracy, played with bubbly delight by Keala Settle, is an overweight 16-year-old who’s passionate about dancing. When an opening on her favorite TV dance show becomes available, she and her best friend Penny secretly skip school to attend the auditions. Although she’s initially shunned by the producer and made fun of by the producer’s daughter, Tracy eventually lands the gig after being “discovered” by the show’s star at her high school sock hop.
There’s just one problem: Everyone on the show is white, which, Tracy believes, is unfair to her equally talented black friends. But since this is 1962 and few blacks are EVER seen on TV, it looks like segregation is here to stay.
Until Tracy comes up with a plan, that is!
What might sound “preachy” on paper is anything but! Instead, “Hairspray” is a toe-tapping romp through teenage angst, young love and race relations that won eight Tony Awards in 2003. Its original music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman makes the 1960s come alive once again, and the script by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan is both heartwarming and laugh-filled.
But it’s the performers who truly carry the show, and the national tour is blessed with a spit-polished cast that brought the house to its feet in near-record time on opening night. (And that’s saying something for a city known worldwide for its easy standing-ohs!)
Right from the start Settle charms the audience with “Good Morning Baltimore” – and never stops, not even after the cast takes its final bows. It’s a warm, energetic and heart-filled performance that should cause every bully to regret whatever mean things they said and did to every fat girl they ever encountered!
Chandra Lee Schwartz has many funny moments as Tracy’s ditsy friend, Penny, while Serge Kushnier serves the production well as the dance show’s heartthrob, Link Larkin. And Alan Mingo Jr. dances like there’s no tomorrow as Seaweed J. Stubbs, the black youth Tracy befriends while serving a detention for “big hair.”
Charlotte Crossley’s Motormouth Maybelle has one of two knockout numbers of the evening, the Gospel-inspired “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
The other, “Timeless to Me,” performed by Stephan DeRosa (Wilbur Turnblad) and J.P. Dougherty (Edna Turnblad), is a loving tribute to couples everywhere who celebrate their differences.
And speaking of Dougherty, the actor had a big bra to fill when he replaced Harvey Fierstein as Tracy’s mother, Edna. His – or is it her? – performance is part of the show’s charm, of course, and it’s one he obviously relishes with great flair! And he does it so convincingly that several people in the crowd were overheard debating the actor’s sex. There’s no finer compliment than that!
“Hairspray” Presented Tuesday through Sunday at the Masonic Temple Theatre, 500 Temple Ave., Detroit, through May 15. Tickets: $33 – $75.50. 313-872-1000. http://www.nederlanderdetroit.com.
The Bottom Line: An evening of laughs, music and nostalgia, but with an important message that never gets lost amidst the fun!