Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
About three years after John Waters’ non-musical film Hairspray (1988) was released, I made my one and only trip to Baltimore, Maryland. My first impression, walking through the airport was: What a lot of crabs! Everything I could see had a crab on it or in it or was made to resemble one. Since I am allergic – consuming a crabmeat canapé the size of a silver dollar can send me to the Emergency Room – I found the whole thing slighting terrifying.
My second impression was that Baltimore was a wonderful, vibrant city. Being a city girl myself, I bought a street map, strapped on my sturdy shoes, and went to explore. And the best thing I found was a plus-sized ladies clothing store in a black neighborhood.
I should state right now that I am a fat woman. “Fat” being the politically correct word to use. It is both accurate and liberating. All these euphemisms – pudgy, plus-sized, BBW, large & lovely, blah, blah, blah –skirt the issue. Americans are terrified of fat – of eating it, of becoming it – and using the word frankly and openly will hopefully, eventually, remove some of the stigma and terror associated with it.
Nothing about white culture celebrates the female body. Clothes are designed to hide it, disguise it, rearrange it. All you ever hear about are ways to “conceal you body flaws” or “look thinner.” I have actually had salespeople tell me that clothing will “make me look thin” which is patently ridiculous. I am NOT thin and no pair of black polyester Capri pants is going to make me look or be that way.
So you can imagine my delight when I found this boutique in Baltimore that was all about looking beautiful. They had wonderful, creative, colorful clothing in a wide range of sizes. The sales staff – all black women – were brutally honest. If you emerged from the fitting room in an unflattering ensemble, they told you. But if you emerged wearing something wonderful they literally cheered. It was a celebration of being a woman, not some futile attempt to conceal or dissemble about the reality of the feminine form.
I had a great time in that shop, but the staff repeatedly told me that it was very dangerous for me, as a white, to be in their neighborhood. They each took my street map in hand and showed me where in the city I would be “safe” and where I wouldn’t. I appreciated their care and concern, but I never felt unsafe or had any problems in any parts of the city.
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 Hairspray starring Ricki Lake, Deborah Harry, and the drag artiste known as Divine.
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 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 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.
What does all this have to do with the production of Hairspray currently running at the Mac-Haydn? Well, from my point of view a lot, otherwise I wouldn’t have included it. I told you the story about my 1991 trip to Baltimore to show you how clearly Waters captured the flavor of his hometown, and how little had changed in the three decades since his time on The Buddy Deane Show, I told you that I am a fat woman and that it is not illegal to discriminate against fat people because I am going to address those issues in this review and those are important facts to keep in mind while you read it. I told you about John Waters and Divine because there would be no Hairspray at all without them and it is important to understand that this big, cartoon-like, all-singing-all-dancing extravaganza has its basis in reality. As usual, truth is stranger than fiction.
The Broadway version of Hairspray is a buoyant, bouncy confection which cleverly conceals its big, 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.
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. 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. 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 Patterson High 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.
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 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 crab on her head – what could be better?
I was almost right. Saunders and Shook are as great as I expected, and White and Clark simply bring down the house with their dancing and singing respectively. Leslie is the quintessential blonde teen goddess, and Papacostas poignantly plays Penny’s blossoming in womanhood. Grayson (gee, its good to see him back at the Mac) made me laugh out loud. The singing is great and the dancing – the whole show is directed and choreographed by Joe Abraham and Christine Negherbon – builds in excitement and complexity as the show progresses.
So what’s wrong? The roles of Tracy and Link are badly miscast. Rice 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. And the point here is not that Tracy gets a boy but that she gets THE boy. Link Larkin needs to be a smokin’ hot hunk of teen-aged perfection. 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.
But the enormous faux pas, the what-were-they-thinking error, is that Tracy is played by an average-sized actress in a fat suit. I mean, did the casting director read the script??
In Elizabethan times the British were amazed, when traveling on the continent, to discover that female actors could play female roles as well, if not better, than the boys in drag they were accustomed to back home. For many decades in the American theatre white actors in blackface were considered superior to “Genuine Negroes” in black roles on stage. Now it’s okay to have a non-fat person play a fat role in padding. In each case the underlying assumption is that the originals – women, blacks, fat people – are inferior beings and incapable of playing themselves. In each case, it’s insulting. Broadway and Hollywood had no trouble finding fat women to play Tracy, I can’t believe that it was impossible for the Mac-Haydn. And if the reason a fat woman wasn’t employed was because she would not “look right” dancing with the rest of the ensemble in other shows (and anyone capable of playing Tracy must be an excellent dancer), then Velma Von Tussle lives.
Encased as she is in padding, Froio is not able to dance well enough to convince us she is ready for prime time. Her movements look oddly stiff because she’s dancing, but her “body” isn’t. I have nothing against Froio as a performer, but she should not have been cast in this role. (This may be the first time a critic has torn an actress to shreds for being to thin for a part.)
On the other hand, Saunders is a wonderful Edna even though in reality he is not a large man. I missed the sight-gag of Edna towering over Wilbur, but the masses of padding, here are necessary to render his form both fat and female. Under all that and a mountain of hair, he fills the stage with his/her presence. I would say that Halliday has done his best costume work for Saunders, but I see a credit in the program that reads “Edna’s costumes built by Claire Johanson.” I am not sure if this means that Johanson dressed Edna, or if she built the prosthetics that turned Saunders into Edna, or both. Frankly, Edna’s duds screamed “Jimm Halliday” to me, but whoever built them, they are great. I especially liked that teal green suit with pillbox hat s/he wore at the end of Act I.
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, and even though I think Pritchard would have been a better choice for Link and Grayson for Wilbur, 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, 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. She is the one genuine fat woman in the cast, and 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 fat people refuse to forced into 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 fat person 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. How come we have to wait for a show with specifically black characters, to see talent like this? Why can’t every day be Negro Day at the Mac?
Because the Mac-Haydn is a theatre-in-the-round, it is impossible to really build a set without blocking sightlines. Normally this doesn’t bother me, but, centering as it does on television, I missed the proscenium arch framing the action in Hairspray. Those big, colorful characters looked kind of lost floating in a sea of light surrounded by a black void, I wanted a cheerful cartoon-bright world for them to live in.
It took me a week to write this review, and I am still not happy with it, but this Web site is called GailSez, and this is what I had to say about this production. It’s only my opinion. Hairspray remains, in this production, a cheerful two and a half hours of family-friendly fun, the kind of fun the Mac-Haydn has spent 40 years perfecting.
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