Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
It's been five years since Cincinnati hosted the national tour of the hit musical Hairspray. Since then, a movie version of the musical (which itself was adapted from a film) was released and further popularized what was already a smashing success on Broadway. This charming, comedic and joyful musical combines worthwhile messages with irresistible music and dancing in a wonderfully slick package. The current non-Equity tour boasts a solid cast and is a welcome season extra for this year's Broadway Series in Cincinnati.
Based on the 1988 film of the same name from eccentric writer and director John Waters, Hairspray is set in Baltimore in 1962, where teenager Tracy Turnblad's one wish is to dance on the TV program "The Corny Collins Show." Despite having a dress size that matches her big hairdo, the spunky heroine earns her way onto the show and even captures the heart of the show's hunk, Link Larkin. With her newfound fame, Tracy becomes a spokesperson for plus-size girls and leads the push to racially integrate the TV show and the rest of city with the help of her unique parents, school friends and other denizens of Baltimore.
Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan won well-earned Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical for Hairspray. The pair wisely took the best of what made the original film a cult classic and added new ideas to create a story that is timeless (the need to fit in), funny (without having to rely on foul language or cheap laughs), socially significant (tackling prejudice based on both race and body type), romantic, and the perfect balance of reality and camp.
The delightful score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman also garnered a Tony Award. The songs uniformly possess infectiously energizing melodies, skillfully crafted lyrics (often with witty double meanings) and toe-tapping rhythms that are difficult to resist. The numbers wonderfully mirror the musical styles of the period, including old-fashioned rock-n-roll, rhythm & blues and gospel, all in a professionally rendered musical theater format. The opening number, "Good Morning Baltimore," splendidly sets the tone of the show, and songs such as "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," "Welcome to the Sixties," "Run and Tell That" and the glorious quartet "Without Love" continue the celebration of all that musicals should be. The final song, "You Can't Stop The Beat," is a perfect finish with its high energy and uplifting messages.
As Tracy, Brooklyn Pulver displays apt determination, genuineness and a heartfelt conviction for justice, and she sings capably. Jerry O'Boyle portrays Edna with less campy and more authentic feminine qualities than predecessors in the role, which allows for a believable mother-daughter connection with Tracy. He also sings the role better than many others who have donned the fat suit thus far. Matthew Ragas possesses a smooth singing voice and suitable charisma as Link, and Amber Rees is appropriately nerdy and comedic as Penny. Christian White (Seaweed), Ariel Tyler Page (Velma) and Angela Birchett (Motormouth) also show off praiseworthy vocal talents, with Ms. Birchett providing chills on her big solo "I Know Where I've Been."
Even with a humorous and timely book, a first-rate score and other strong elements, bringing this show together into one cohesive unit isn't an easy task. However, Tony Award winner Director Jack O'Brien has done so with exceptional results. O'Brien's work for the Broadway production is recreated for this tour by Matt Lenz. There is a commendable attention to detail, a sustained tone of excitement, smart comedy and moments of touching seriousness. O'Brien's staging of "I Can Hear the Bells" and many other moments approach genius level.
Choreographer Jerry Mitchell's dances, which carefully capture the flavor of the decade, are recreated here by Danny James Austin. The vibrancy of the choreography in numbers such as "The Nicest Kids in Town," "Run and Tell That," "The Big Dollhouse" (featuring wonderful background moves by the ensemble) and the finale is contagious. Ross Scott Rawlings enthusiastically leads a talented reduced pit of musicians playing the smile-inducing orchestrations by Harold Wheeler.
Hairspray also features beautiful design elements. The sets by David Rockwell are fun, inventive and well-crafted. William Ivey Long's costumes are impeccable as usual, and the exquisitely colorful lighting design by Kenneth Posner is visually interesting and playful.
It's difficult to imagine newcomers to this show not feeling the energizing joy that so many theatergoers have previously shared at Hairspray, and those only familiar with the movie musical version will discover new delights as well. Producers recently announced that the Broadway production will close in January 2009, so this national tour may be the last opportunity for audiences to experience the show in its original splendor.
The national tour of Hairspray continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through October 26, 2008. Tickets can be ordered by calling (513) 241-7469.-- Scott Cain