Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Trouble in Tahiti and Service Provider and Beautiful - The Carole King Musical

In the photo: Caroline Eisman, Greg Kalafatas,
and Cast

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Okay, class, the Russians beat us into space with Sputnik a few years ago, so we better bone up on science. Today's chemistry lesson covers the ingredients in hairspray. Since our setting is 1962, our hairspray still contains chlorofluorocarbons. Get plenty of those now because down the road our government is going to ban the darn stuff for depleting something called the ozone layer, and we will be relegated to using a mix of hydrocarbons, alcohol, and aminomethyl propanol. And yes, spelling counts.

Staying on the topic of hairspray, we turn to the science of creating a near-perfect musical comedy–of which Hairspray is a perfect specimen. Just as those crazy chemical mixtures held those elaborate 1962 hairdos in place, the elements of the musical Hairspray have kept it as fresh and exhilarating as it was when the show opened on Broadway in 2002. Being science class, we need evidence, and the evidence is on stage at the Ordway where a national tour has brought the show back to the Twin Cities, as buoyant an entertainment as ever.

Hairspray is based on the 1988 movie directed by John Waters. The musical maintains the film's campy, larger than life feel in telling the story of how Tracy Turnblad, a short, plus-sized Baltimore high school student in the early 1960s parlays her enthusiasm and sense of fairness to overcome the high hurdles and become Miss Teenage Hairspray of 1962 on "The Corny Collins show," a teenage dance party show avidly watched by Tracy and her shy, dim-witted best friend Penny. The girls drool over Link, the show's heartthrob teen idol, in grooming to become the next Elvis. The show promotes Link's romance with fellow teen-dancer Amber Van Tussle, and Amber and her mother Velma (who is the show's producer) aim to parlay that into a showbiz career.

In addition to an uproariously funny book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan and an unstoppably good score, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Hairspray delivers cool messages of acceptance of diverse body types and racial integration that were pertinent to its 1962 setting, remained so when the movie appeared in 1988, when the musical first mounted in 2002, and continue to be national sore points in 2024.

Tracy does not have the typical look of a beauty queen, but she has the heart and spirit, which in the end proves to matter more. She rejects the strict segregation in 1962 Baltimore–and throughout most of the nation at that time–finding it absurd that her Black classmates can only be represented on "The Corny Collins Show"'s monthly "Negro Day." We can take heart in how much progress has been made since 1962, but Hairspray also suggests we look ahead to how much farther we have to go.

One of the most distinctive elements of Hairspray is the character of Edna Turnblad, Tracy's reclusive mother who avoids venturing out of her home for fear of being humiliated about her substantial girth. Edna is typically played by a male actor in drag–Devine in the movie, Harvey Fierstein in the original Broadway cast, John Travolta in the movie based on the Broadway show, and in this touring production, Greg Kalafatas, who combines comedic sensibility, underlying warmth, and heft to create a winning performance.

Edna's size, as played by large men, is especially humorous beside the diminutive actors who have been cast as her husband Wilbur, in this case Ralph Prentice Daniel. We expect husbands to be larger and wives to be smaller, and in turning the stereotype on its head, Hairspray scores comedy points and further challenges our assumptions about which people belong together. Wilbur runs a joke shop and looks at things from a light-hearted perspective, while Edna, whose own dreams were never realized, sees all glasses as half empty. She tries to keep Tracy from trying out for a spot on "The Corny Collins" show for fear of her daughter's spirit being crushed, as hers was. Hairspray is as much about Edna's transformation, thanks to Tracy's courage and spunk and her husband's unwavering love, as about Tracy's victory and the opening of opportunities for her African American friends.

Greg Kalafatas's shining performance as Edna is matched by the rest of this non-Equity cast. Caroline Eiseman is Tracy, singing and dancing with gusto and expressing indefatigable hope and vigor from the start with the buoyant opening "Good Morning Baltimore." Daniel shines as Wilbur, wearing his good heart on his sleeve and making stop-the-show magic with Kalafatas in their song and dance "(You're) Timeless to Me." As Link, Skyler Shields has a fine voice for crooning ("It Takes Two") and shows off slick dance moves, while conveying the unfinished quality of a teenage boy with a lot left to learn. Emmanuelle Zeesman is terrific as the villain of the piece, Velma Van Tussle, using every trick in the book to thwart Tracy, promote Amber, and hold fast to the segregated color line.

Josiah Rogers is wonderful as Seaweed J. Stubbs, Tracy's Black friend who first teachers her the dance moves she'll need to make it on "The Corny Collins Show," and then expands her world by inviting her up to the hood. Rogers delivers the goods in "Run and Tell That," both vocally and with sleek and athletic dance moves. As Seaweed's mother, Motormouth Maybelle, Deidre Lang gives a take-no-prisoners performance, especially when delivering her two big numbers, "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" and the spiritual-honed anthem "I Know Where I've Been." Caroline Portner is appropriately annoying as arrogant Amber Van Tussle, and Scarlett Jacques displays comic flair as Tracy's BFF, Penny.

Jack O'Brien won a Tony for his direction of the original production, which assembled a set of high-octane parts and makes the sum of them even greater, a feat that is ably replicated by tour director Matt Lenz. Almost every number becomes a dance number, whether for the full ensemble–more often than not–or a sublime soft shoe for Edna and Wilbur. Jerry Mitchell's original choreography has been re-created with care by Robbie Roby, filling the stage with invention and energy time and time again.

Hairspray's score has one of the highest percentages of hits over misses of any musical I know. Out of seventeen discreet songs, I would rate thirteen as terrific, and none as less than fine. Harold Wheeler's orchestrations bring the life of the Kennedy-era sixties to the tunes, expertly played by the orchestra conducted by Lizzie Webb.

The eye-popping, colorful sets designed by David Rockwell and costumes by William Ivey Long are still in place and look as fabulous as ever, while Kenneth Posner's original lighting, adapted for this tour by Paul Miller, bring the right shades of illumination to Baltimore's vibrant streets, the brightly lit TV studio, the humble Turnblad home, a drab school detention hall, and a prison block–yes prison: this show has everything!

If you don't catch it this time, be on the lookout for its return. This Hairspray holds down a look that will never go out of style.

Hairspray runs through March 17, 2024, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-4222 or visit For information on tour, visit

Book: Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters; Music and Arrangements: Marc Shaiman; Lyrics: Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman; Original Director: Jack O'Brien; Tour Director: Matt Lenz; Original Choreography: Jerry Mitchell; Tour Choreography: Robbie Roy; Scenic Design: David Rockwell; Costume Design: William Icey Long; Lighting Design: Paul Miller, based on the Broadway lighting design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design: Shannon Slaton; Video Design: Patrick W. Ward; Wig and Hair Design: Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia; Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler; Music Supervision: Keith Thompson; Music Coordinator: JP Meyer; Music Director: Lizzie Webb; Casting: Prather Productions; Production Stage Manager: Jess Levine; Production Manager: Russell A. Thompson; Executive Producer: William T. Prather.

Cast at this performance: Abigail Bensman (Brenda), Connor Buonaccorsi (swing), Ashia Collins (a Dynamite), Joshua James Crawford (swing), Kaila Symone Crowder (Little Inez), Ralph Prentice Daniel (Wilbur Turnblad), Scoob Decker (male authority figure/Wilbur understudy), Caroline Eiseman (Tracy Turnblad), Craig First (Brad), Audrey Taylor Floyd (swing), Gavin Guthrie (IQ), Emmanuelle Zeesman (Velma Van Tussle), Alyssa Jacqueline (Shelley), Scarlett Jacques (Penny Pingleton), Greg Kalafatas (Edna Turnblad), Deidre Lang (Motormouth Maybelle), Leiah Lewis (Pearl), Christy Obendorf (Tammy), Kynnedi Moryae Porter (a Dynamite/Cindy), Caroline Portner (Amber Van Tussle), Caroline Purdy (Lou Ann), Kalab Quinn (Duane), Josiah Thomas Randolph (Thad), Amy Rodriguez (Tracy Turnblad standby), Josiah Rogers (Seaweed J. Stubbs), Micah Sauvageau (Harriman F. Spritzer, Mr. Pinky, Principal, Prison Guard), Andrew Scoggin (Corny Collins), Skyler Shields (Link Larkin), Scott Silagy (Sketch), Lilliannie Arie Urgent (Lorraine), James Douglas Vinson (Fender), Gabriel Yarborough (Gilbert), Cara Torchia (Prudy Pingleton, gym teacher, prison matron).