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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
This cheeky musical, based on a 1988 movie from the quirky Baltimore director John Waters, has always been a feel good, high energy experience blending song, dance and easy to digest moralizing. Winner of eight 2003 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, it stands along side Grease and Footloose as a Broadway prize winning homage to teenagers, rebellion and rock and roll.
Set in Waters’ hometown of Baltimore, the musical hints at the rapidly evolving social and sexual landscape of the 1960s. When Tracy Turnblad (Erin McCracken) a chubby, cheerful Baltimore teen, sets her heart on appearing on the local television dance show hosted by Corny Collins (Pat McRoberts) – think Dick Clark - she doesn’t realize she is about to become a galvanizing figure in the struggle for civil rights. Befriended by some black teenagers and invited to dance with them, she is moved to help them to appear regularly on Collins’ show even though only one day a month is reserved for “Negro Dance Day.”
Tracy’s plans are complicated by the show’s scheming producer, Velva Von Tussle (Ann Van Cleve). Velma is determined to have her dizzy blonde daughter, Amber (Kara Dombrowski) crowned this year’s Hairspray Queen (the show’s sponsor is a hairspray company) – and that means no real competition from white or black dancers. And there’s also the problem of Tracy’s emotional fixation on handsome, but sensitive as a post, Link Larkin (Tripp Hampton) the male eye candy on the show. How Tracy manages to get to dance with the Corny Collins regulars, win Link’s heart AND convince the bigoted sponsor that having blacks on the show is good business is the stuff of stage magic – and the skill of a couple of seasoned comedy writers.
Music is the real pulse of the show. Composer Marc Shaiman clearly captured the beat that teenagers rock and romance to. Director Richard Stafford is also attuned to the energy only the very young possess and his dancers approach his daunting and infectious choreography like gold medal Olympians.
It would be easy to say this production succeeds as well as it does because of its sterling ensemble, but that would be like calling a New York Yankees win a team effort. Yeah, but what a team!
Stafford has cast this show with ace performers from top to bottom. I can’t recall seeing a production in which every secondary character blossomed like a star as they do in this one. McCracken is a crackerjack Tracy and she’s matched by Tad Wilson as her larger than life mother, Edna. It’s one of Hairspray’s unique concepts that Edna is played by a man in drag. (It doesn’t push the point, but nevertheless this gender bending situation clearly is a pro gay statement. That’s clear enough when the audience cheers Edna and “her” husband Wilbur (Bruce Rebold) singing “Timeless to Me,” an ode to love and marriage. When Wilbur kisses Edna, the audience is aware that this is a man kissing another man, and the applause is loud and positive.)
Wilson starts out slowly, but once he gets going he invests Edna with comic zeal and sensitivity. Van Cleave is a powerhouse recounting “The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs” and Inga Ballard as “Motormouth” Maybelle, stops the show with “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
Kudos also to Terry Palasz and Scott Colcagno, who each play a variety of hilarious characters. He’s funny as the school principal who seems to only be able to turn in 90 degree angles when walking , and she’s gleefully (and lecherously) butch as a coach and a cop.
Despite all that well deserved praise, I’ve saved the best for last. There’s a wiry black kid named Elgin Giles who plays Seaweed and he is nothing short of sensational. He’s got moves and moves and moves and he is dance incarnate. He won’t have to be pointed out – you’ll spot him for sure!
(For song list, refer to Curtainup's original Broadway review