Review - Hairspray (Theater - 2006)
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HAIRSPRAY (San Jose CPA - June 2006)

American Musical Theatre of San Jose

Reviewed by Larry Jakubecz



What is it with people who attend musical theater regularly? At least those well-to-do season subscribers in the mixed opening-night crowd.  How do you light a fire under these folks?  Do they even want to be there? At least the “other half” was willing to cut loose.  Hairspray is one of those shows that practically dares you to sit still, and frankly, this reviewer didn’t even try.


Based on trash culture king John Waters’ film, Hairspray is a kicky fable about a light-on-her-feet fat girl who wins a spot on a local TV dance show and liberates it for the town’s other survigrous (read: black) teens.


In its original Broadway run, the show took home eight Tony awards, and it’s no wonder: from the rocking opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” the show wraps you in its dazzling mix of bold and pastel colors and sets one’s feet a-tappin’. The highly-stylized and endlessly inventive sets feel like a living book of 60’s design, with a kaleidoscopic wall of lights that might belong at a U2 concert.


Tracy Turnblad is an effervescent, overweight teen who just wants to dance, darn it. Her dad, Wilbur (Jim J. Bullock) makes ends meet running a joke shop while her mother, Edna (J.P. Dougherty, in the role originated by Harvey Fierstein) only wants what’s best for her little girl. When Tracy finds herself in after-school detention with Patterson High’s Negro contingent, it’s an opportunity to learn some snappy new dance moves. Soon, it’s time for the big competition, and... needless to say, all does not go well. By the time the big can of hairspray opens in the finale, though, you’ll wish you could spend a few more hours in this Baltimore-that never-was. (And, for extra fun, listen for Waters’ voice on the Turnblad TV.)


As the film’s Tracy, Ricki Lake (does anyone remember that she once looked like this?) bubbled over with energy and movement. On the live stage, Keala Settle’s Tracy is even more zippy and animated.


Marc Shaiman’s score fuses Broadway and Motown into something that sounds both original and authentic; I’m convinced that if he wasn’t writing for films and theater, he’d have a career like that of Elton John or Billy Joel. As usual, Scott Wittman’s thoroughly clever, self-referential lyrics tease out non-stop grins. That cleverness extends to the direction, which is tight and invites the eye to follow every gesture and spotlight (Act Two’s opener echoes Chicago’s “Cellblock Tango” staging, complete with a “Lipshitz” reference.)


Much as I hate to say it, there is one big negative point, and it involves the show’s second half... most of it. The problem is, not much really happens; the bulk of the story resides in Act One. Consequently, Act Two feels drawn out, with the final number (“You Can’t Stop the Beat”) threatening to bum out a happy trip. The two big showstoppers also push the limit—one is a nifty pas de deux with Edna and Wilbur restating their love alone on a curtained stage (“Timeless to Me”) that seems to end several times.


The other, Motormouth Maybelle’s belter on racial equality, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” is such a heavy-handed statement and presented so seriously that it seems out of place in this property. In fact, the show contains several lines whose “Message” made me wince (black teen: “Are all white people like that?” Wilbur: “No—just most!”). Yuck.


All told, however, there’s little about which to quibble. John Waters has said that Hairspray isn’t camp. I agree. It’s kitsch, sure, but presented so earnestly it’s like re-embracing the stuff of childhood. No doubt, when the show goes up, the audience’s hair comes down.




2006 Larry Jakubecz/Celluloid Dreams



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