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'Hairspray' a sparkling package of fun
When it comes to this show, you just can't stop the beat
If based solely on its plot, “Hairspray” sounds as though it has the potential to be overly trite and clichéd.
A naïve but optimistic teen-ager uses music and dancing to achieve her dreams of stardom and social justice, overcoming the mean popular girl and winning the boy of her dreams.
But somehow, “Hairspray” makes it work and avoids blandness. Now in its fifth year running at the Neil Simon Theater in New York, this musical based on the film by John Waters emerges as a sparkling package of wholesomeness and fun. It may be full of Important Lessons, but it has just enough sharp wit and off-beat characters to make the sugary confection palatable.
The action centers on Tracy Turnblad (Shannon Durig), an overweight teen-ager living in Baltimore in 1962. She achieves her dream of dancing on The Corny Collins Show, battling mean girl Amber Von Tussle (Brynn O’Malley) and winning the heart of dreamboat Link Larkin (u/s Daniel Robertson). Not only does Tracy achieve success and happiness for herself, but also she uses her eternal optimism and plucky courage to strike a blow for racial equality, establishing integration on The Corny Collins show.
Though Durig does a fine job with Tracy, it’s her mother Edna Turnblad (Paul C. Vogt) who steals the show. Edna, a huge woman in curlers and a housedress is played by Vogt with an even huger heart, delicately infusing the role with motherly love. The duet “You’re Timeless to Me” between Vogt and husband Wilbur Turnblad (Jerry Mathers) is charming: the two pros smoothly strut across the stage together, Vogt towering over Mathers in heels and beehive hair as the two profess their adoration for the other, despite graying hair and expanding waistlines.
Some roles such as bland pretty-boy Link Larkin and evil popular girl Amber and her overbearing stage mother Velma Von Tussle (Isabel Keating) become more caricatures than characters, their presence becoming increasingly irritating with every stage appearance.
Plenty of others, however, step up to fill “Hairspray” with genuine pizzazz. Penny Pingleton (Alexa Vega) shines as Tracy’s gawky but enthusiastic friend who falls in love with Seaweed J. Stubbs (Tevin Campbell), a hip African American teen-ager from Motormouth Maybelle’s Record Shop. Seaweed’s younger sister Inez (Naturi Naughton) serves as a far less annoying Tracy with an equally belting voice, and his mother Motormouth Maybelle (Darlene Love) sends shivers down spines with her preachy but powerful “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
“Hairspray” is at its best when it’s going full swing at toe-tapping numbers like “Good Morning, Baltimore,” “Welcome to the ‘60s” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” The sets are appropriately splashy and tacky, bringing just the right energy this visually appealing production, and the 60’s costumes and do’s are a sight to behold.
The musical lags though, in slower numbers like Link and Tracy’s duet, “It Takes Two” and the truly awful “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs,” an abrasive ballad by the obnoxious Velma Von Tussle.
Even with these minor blemishes, the production serves as a shining example of how Broadway musicals should make you feel when you leave the theater: exhilarated, exhausted and ready to dance your way home on the sidewalks of New York, tapping your heels together and belting out tunes that are sure to be in your head for weeks to come.
There’s no question that when it comes to “Hairspray,” you just can’t stop the beat.
Eliza Kern is a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, and editor in chief of the school’s award-winning newspaper, the Black & White.
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