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Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's reviews of Cambodian Rock Band, As You Like It and Between Two Knees

The Cast of Hairspray
Photo by Jenny Graham
It would be easy to dismiss musicals as frivolous entertainments, nothing more than diversions from the chaos and anxiety of modern life, a place to go and spend two or three hours immersed in a world where everything is shiny and happy and love—even if it has to wait until the end of act two—almost always wins. Sure, there are dark and troubling musicals (I'm looking at you, Stephen Sondheim), but some of my favorite works of musical theatre deliver powerful messages. South Pacific reminds us of the perniciousness of racism and the important of duty in service of a righteous cause. The Book of Mormon may have a crusty exterior of profanity and blasphemy, but its core message is sweet: that faith—even if it's based on a fiction—can have value if it brings people together and helps them be nicer to each other.

Hairspray (with book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman) also delivers a powerful message in an entertaining, colorful way. It reminds us of the horrible legacy of racism (though "legacy" may not be the correct term, since we still have far too much of it) and encourages us to remember that everyone should have the chance to dance.

The conflict at the core of Hairspray is that "The Corny Collins Show," a local afterschool TV dance show airing in Baltimore in the early 1960s is—like much of the nation at that time—segregated. Only good-looking, popular white kids (or, as one of the first numbers calls them, "The Nicest Kids in Town") get to dance on the show. Sure, once a month they have "Negro Day," but that's not enough for Tracy Turnblad (Katy Geraghty), a zaftig teenage girl who decides to audition to be a dancer on the show despite the worries of her mother Edna (Daniel T. Parker), who fears Tracy will be rejected based solely on her weight. It's a reasonable fear, especially with the snooty attitude of the show's producer Velma Von Tussle (Kate Mulligan) and her bully of a daughter Amber (Leanne A. Smith), one of the show's teen dancers. (Velma speaks—accidentally on purpose?—of steering the kids "in the white direction.")

But Tracy is friends with Seaweed J. Stubbs (Christian Bufford), a black student at her high school whose mother, a record store owner named Motormouth Maybelle (Greta Oglesby), is the host of "Negro Day" on "The Corny Collins Show," and she doesn't understand why anyone who can dance well enough can't be on the show. Oglesby absolutely slays the audience with her performance of "I Know Where I've Been," bringing the audience to its feet at the performance I attended.

Director Christopher Liam Moore takes this message of inclusion and amps it up by adding special needs performers to the cast, including kids with cerebral palsy and spinal cord injuries (Jenna Bainbridge, who plays Tracy's best friend Penny Pingleton), bringing a new level of diversity to a show that already celebrates it.

But a powerful, positive message does not a great musical make. Great music and an entertaining book, plus thrilling choreography, powerful performances, and top-notch staging and costumes are required for that—all of which this production of Hairspray has in spades. Nina Ball's set is gorgeous: a large block that rotates to become (with the help of propping that rolls in and out) the exterior of the Turnblad home, the high school, a jail, and—with the drop of a curtain—the studio of "The Corny Collins Show." It's all set on a stage that is covered with a stylized map of Baltimore, with period-perfect additions like the pink toilet and vanity in the Turnblad's bathroom. Costumes by Susan Tsu are colorful and true to character and period (special kudos for Mr. Pinky's pink houndstooth suit), and her wigs (especially Tracy's ) appropriately gargantuan.

The kids rebel against the strictures of the time, despite the threats from Velma Von Tussle and the racist power structure—about which Motormouth Maybelle warns the kids, telling them to expect "a whole lot of ugly coming at you from an endless parade of stupid" if they attempt to integrate their favorite TV show. By the time the cast are taking their bows, this goal will have been achieved, villains will have been thwarted, lovers brought together, and happiness will reign—just as we expect in musicals, even ones with a message.

Hairspray, through October 27, 2019, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, 20 E Main St., Ashland OR. Check the calendar at for specific dates and times. Ticket are $55-$155 and can be purchased at the same website.