Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
I feel like Emily Litella. You remember, that character Gilda Radner used to do on the Weekend Update segments on Saturday Night Live back in the day. Emily was a sweet little old lady in a cardigan who never heard anything right and would read pithy on-air rants about Saving Soviet Jewelry or the Eagle Rights Amendment (“Eagles can’t vote. They can’t press the little levers with their feathers.”) At the conclusion Chevy Chase would lean over and say politely “Emily, that’s saving Soviet Jewry” or “It’s the Equal Rights Amendment” after which Emily would look puzzled for a moment as she pondered the correction and then turn to the camera, smile sweetly and say “Never mind.”
So I went to see Hairspray at the Mac-Haydn the other week and it came to my attention that the leading role of Tracy Turnblad was being played by an average-sized woman in a fat suit, which precipitated a rant on my part. Then I was informed that all the actresses who play Tracy are padded.
Oh, well, that’s very different then.
Well, no, not “never mind.” I still have my rant about fat suits, but it is no longer a rant directed at the management of the Mac-Haydn. In fact I owe a profound boot-licking apology to those good people who did not deserve the public denunciation I gave them in my previous review of their production. In light of this new information, you will find following a revised review of the Mac-Haydn production of Hairspray.
Filmmaker John Waters was born in Baltimore in 1946. As a teen in the early 1960’s, he danced on a local TV show in the American Bandstand mold called The Buddy Deane Show. Only whites were allowed to appear on the show and an attempt to integrate it led to its cancellation when the parents of the white teens objected to their offspring dancing with blacks. Waters took this experience and created the 1988 film Hairspray starring Ricki Lake, Deborah Harry, and the drag artiste known as Divine, a life-long friend of Waters.
I think it is important to understand that the big, cartoon-like, all-singing-all-dancing extravaganza that is the Broadway musical version of Hairspray has its basis in reality. As usual, truth is stranger than fiction.
As a teenager, I found Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead), who was not only a transvestite but a fat transvestite, fascinating. I remember clipping photos of him out of the Village Voice and pasting them in my scrapbook. Many of those were ads for John Waters films in which Divine appeared. He played Edna Turnblad and Arvin Hodgepile in Waters’ Hairspray and he died a week after its release. When Waters agreed to allow Hairspray to be made into a Broadway musical, he stipulated that the role of Edna must be played by a man, partly in honor of Divine, and partly to make the kind of off-kilter, subversive statements John Waters enjoys making.
The Broadway version of Hairspray is a buoyant, bouncy confection which cleverly conceals its subversive themes of diversity, liberation, and discrimination under big hair, big dance numbers, and a non-stop parade of fabulously frothy songs, each a perfect early ‘60’s rock pastiche, by Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Waters turned down the offer to write the book, but he worked closely with librettists Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan to distill the wide screen world on to the confines of the stage.
The Mac-Haydn has survived these past thirty-nine seasons by doing one thing very, very well – producing big colorful productions of relentlessly upbeat all-singing-all-dancing American musicals, of which Hairspray is the latest, and most certainly not the last, of a long line. So when the Mac announced this as their big, midsummer show, I was thrilled. Fabulous costumes by Jimm Halliday, John Saunders in drag, Karla Shook with a rhinestone encrusted crustacean on her head – what could be better? Not much. Here the whole lively and talented cast directed and choreographed by Joe Abraham and Christine Negherbon sings their hearts out as the dancing builds in excitement and complexity to the breathless finale You Can’t Stop the Beat. Hairspray is a cheerful two and a half hours of the kind of family-friendly fun the Mac-Haydn has spent 40 years perfecting.
In this version, it is May of 1962 and we find tubby Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad (Elizabeth Froio) living with her mother Edna (John Saunders) and father Wilbur (Colin Pritchard) in their apartment over Wilbur’s joke novelty store, The Har-De-Har Hut, and attending Patterson High School. A mediocre student at best, Tracy lives for 4 pm when she and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Katarina Papcostas) dash home from school to dance along to The Corny Collins Show on TV (Corny is played by Ben Jacoby). They idolize The Nicest Kids in Town, the Ken-and-Barbie perfect boys and girls who dance on the show. Ricky-Nelson-Wanna-Be crooner Link Larkin (Christopher Rice) and Barbie-doll-blonde Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Leslie) are the leading couple, and Amber’s mother Velma Von Tussle (Karla Shook), a former Miss Baltimore Crabs, is the producer. The show is sponsored by Ultra Clutch Hairspray and overseen by its representative Harriman F. Spritzer (Jamie Grayson, who also appears as a number of other Male Authority Figures). The company magnanimously allows black teens to dance on the show once a month on “Negro Day,” which is hosted by Miss Motormouth Maybelle (Yvette Clark).
The biggest things in Tracy’s life are her hairdo and her crush on Link. She wants more than anything to dance with him on the show, and as soon as there is an opening she cuts class and dashes down to audition. She is, of course, rejected.
Back at school Tracy and Penny get detention for cutting, and it is there that they meet up with Maybelle’s children, Seaweed J. Stubbs (Christian White) and Little Inez (Shanikwa Tomlinson), and other black students, who teach Tracy the dance moves she needs to land the spot on the show. Once on board, Tracy discovers a new and nobler goal in life – to integrate The Corny Collins Show and “make every day Negro Day.”
It’s love at first sight for Penny and Seaweed, much to the horror of her racist mother, Prudy (Tara Tagliaferro, who also appears as a number of other Female Authority Figures), and for Link and Tracy. Both couples have plenty of prejudice ahead, but this is a musical comedy and so, unlike The Buddy Deane Show, it has a happy ending. The pro-diversity team wins out over the white establishment, and The Corny Collins Show is integrated and is not canceled. Tracy also defeats Amber for the title of Miss Baltimore Hairspray.
Froio has spoken of Tracy as her “dream role” and she plays it with verve and a big voice to match that ridiculously tricked out hair (but if you think Tracy’s ‘Do is something wait until you see the wigs Caitlin Maxwell has whipped up for the finale. My favorite was the Dr. Seuss-like model Kelly L. Shook was sporting.) Tracy is like one of those fluffy little dogs, all bounce and waggle and energy. It is a demanding role and Froio is well up to the challenge.
Saunders is a wonderful Edna. Under masses of padding and a mountain of hair, he fills the stage with his/her presence. I should make it clear now that Edna IS a woman. Saunders is not playing a man in drag, even though that is what he is. The Turnblads are a heterosexual couple and Edna is Tracy’s biological mother. There is no more delightful duet for a middle-aged monogamous couple than You’re Timeless to Me. While I wasn’t initially taken with Pritchard in the role of Wilbur – too normal around the edges to be a John Waters kinda guy – by the time they got around to that number I was sold on Saunders and Pritchard as a couple.
Saunders is channeling Harvey Fierstein*, who originated the role of Edna on Brodway and won a Tony for his efforts, using his own gravely voice instead of effecting more feminine tones, as John Travolta chose to do in the recent musical film of Hairspray. Edna is a fat woman who has allowed society to make her so ashamed of her body that she literally hasn’t left the house in over a decade. She earns a living by taking in washing – she calls her business Edna’s Occidental Laundry – and discourages Tracy from pursuing her dreams because Edna wants Tracy to avoid the pain Edna has experienced watching her dreams die. Saunders, Halliday, Claire Johanson who built Edna's costumes, and the wig artists team to make Edna’s progression from miserable agoraphobic to snazzy swan a pleasure to witness.
The black members of the cast are all remarkably talented and a true joy to watch in action. Clark is simply amazing. She had the audience on their feet cheering before her big 11 o’clock number I Know Where I’ve Been came to its conclusion. Halliday has dressed her all in flashy form-fitting fabulosity because if there’s one thing that drives those Velma Von Tussle’s crazy it’s the notion that larger people refuse to forced into a a mold that will never fit, that they accept and celebrate their bodies as they are and can show them off if they want to. When Clark shed outer garments to reveal a bustier or spandex capris, there were audible gasps from the audience. That’s how shocking and subversive the vision of a big woman in all her glory can be.
You will not be surprised to learn that both Clark and White are reprising roles they played in the international touring cast of Hairspray. It is a real treat to see performers of this caliber in the intimate confines of the Mac-Haydn.
Also outstanding in their Supremes-style turn as The Dynamites are Adrianna Hicks, Brit West, and Ayana Major Bey, whose strong voices and exceptionally energetic dancing also add greatly to the chorus numbers. Even though the Mac has included talented performers of color over the years, I’ll take my turn as Tracy and say I’d love to see even more integration and color blind casting there, especially since its obvious the talent is available.
As Amber, Leslie is the quintessential blonde teen goddess, and she is nicely teamed with Karla Shook, who, in her sprayed-on-tight hot pink sheath dress and towering blonde wig, is one hell of a Baltimore Crab.
Papacostas poignantly plays Penny’s blossoming in womanhood. I think Penny is one of the most realistic and therefore most relatable of the characters in Hairspray, embodying as she does the awkward pain of even the most normal and attractive of adolescents. At the end, when Penny emerges all dressed up and ready to claim her place in the world, Papacostas delivered the line “I’m a pretty girl, mama,” with great humanity and pathos.
In their many broadly cartoon-like roles, Grayson (gee, its good to see him back at the Mac) and Tagliaferro made me laugh out loud.
Unfortunately, Rice just didn’t look like Link Larkin to me. He is a gentle-looking, slightly scrawny young man with a warm smile and nice eyes. His singing and dancing are neither fabulous nor dreadful. In other words, he’s average. Link Larkin needs to be a smokin’ hot hunk of teen-aged perfection. It has been pointed out to me that, in the real world, girls frequently go ga-ga for less than perfect specimens of masculinity, which is undeniably true, but this isn’t real life. The point here is not that Tracy gets A boy (and Rice looks like a very nice boy to get) but that she gets THE boy. And she doesn’t have to do anything special to convince him that under all that fat is a girl worth noticing, he notices her and falls for her right away. This is one of those big, subversive John Waters statements I was talking about – size doesn’t matter – when we all know that in the real world it matters so much that people commit suicide over it.
In his review of the original Broadway production New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote: “If life were everything it should be, it would be more like Hairspray...” Wouldn’t it be lovely if all the wrongs in the world could be righted if you just danced fast enough?
The fact that both of the leading ladies are fat and one of them is also a man in drag speaks volumes. We can watch Hairspray today smug in the knowledge that it is now illegal to discriminate against people because they are black, or female, or gay, or a transvestite. What most people are not aware of is that it is perfectly legal in every state but Michigan to discriminate against someone on the basis of their weight or height. In other words, today it would be illegal to prevent Seaweed and Little Inez from dancing on The Corny Collins Show simply because of the color of their skin, but Tracy Turnblad could still be sent packing, regardless of how well she danced, because she’s fat.
Hairspray runs THREE WEEKS through July 20 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
* Pop Quiz: Name the only other actor who has won a Tony for playing a person of the opposite gender – not a person in drag, a la Victor/Victoria or La Cage Aux Folles, but an actor playing a person who is biologically the opposite gender from him/herself.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008