Also see Scott's review of Alice in Wonderland
"Pure joy" is the phrase that seems to best describe the experience of seeing the musical Hairspray. The show is irresistibly charming and refreshingly hilarious, and it remains the best show playing on Broadway more than a year after its premiere. Hairspray won eight Tony Awards in 2003 and is clearly the top of the class of modern musical comedies. Thankfully, the national tour currently running at the Aronoff Center is able to duplicate the bliss that one feels by the end of the show, thanks in large part to its gifted and hard-working cast.
Hairspray is based on the 1988 film of the same name from eccentric writer and director John Waters. As a teenager in Baltimore in 1962, 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-sized girls and leads the push to racially integrate the TV program and the rest of city with the help of her "unique" parents, school chums, and other denizens of Baltimore.
Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan deservedly won Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical for Hairspray. They wisely took the best of what made the film a cult classic and added in new ideas to create a story that is timeless (the need to fit in), funny (without having to rely on vulgarity or cheap laughs), socially significant (tackling prejudice based on both race and body type), romantic and the perfect balance of reality and camp.
The 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. By the time the final song, "You Can't Stop The Beat," finishes, audience members are likely to be dancing in the aisles.
Due to the remarkable performances turned in by (not to mention the huge amount of attention given to) the original Broadway cast of Hairspray, it is difficult not to make some comparisons to that group of performers when critiquing the national tour company. Thankfully, there is no need to worry.
As Tracy, newcomer Carly Jibson is superb. She is a much stronger singer than Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won a Tony for the role in New York. Ms. Jibson is a fireball of energy, handles the musical demands effortlessly and earns tons of laughs (many with her non-verbal expressions). This nineteen year old performs like a seasoned pro. On Broadway, the show was (and still is) dominated by the immense presence of Harvey Fierstein as Edna, Tracy's mom. For the tour, the character as portrayed by writer and comedian Bruce Vilanch is less the focus of attention. If Mr. Vilanch lacks Fierstein's acting chops and larger-than-life charisma, he does well with the comedy rich material and is much easier to understand than his Broadway counterpart in his delivery of lines and lyrics. He and the likewise funny Todd Susman (as Tracy's dad, Wilbur) make their duet "Timeless To Me" both a hilarious vaudevillian number and a charming love song between husband and wife.
The many supporting players also impress. Austin Miller [see our interview] is just right as the clueless hunk Link Larkin, and Terron Brooks is a spirited and humorous Seaweed. As Penny, Sandra Denise is appropriately dippy and demonstrates a potent belt. Charlotte Crossley (Motormouth Maybelle) brings down the house with her poignant performance of "I Know Where I've Been." Troy Britton Johnson is both smooth and suitably cheesy as Corny Collins, and Susan Cella and Jordan Ballard deliciously portray the wicked mother-daughter duo of Velma and Amber Von Tussle. The rest of the ensemble also put forth praiseworthy triple-threat performances.
Even with a humorous and timely book, a first-rate score, and other strong elements, bringing this enormous 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 stages scenes in an enormously effective manner, and his attention to detail is commendable. A tone of excitement is maintained throughout, and both the comedy and the seriousness of the material are communicated to maximum effect without being overly silly or preachy. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell does excellent work here as well, and his dances deftly capture the flavor of the decade. 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. Jim Vukovich leads a talented pit of musicians playing the fitting 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 one of the best seen in recent memory on tour.
Hairspray is an early Christmas present to the residents of Cincinnati. The same joy that can be found in the grateful faces of children on Christmas morning can be seen in audience members leaving Hairspray. The show is a pure delight in every way. The national tour of Hairspray continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through December 14. Tickets can be ordered by calling (513) 241-7469.