Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Hairspray, It's an Infectious Celebration

Also see Richard's reviews of Cabaret Girl and
Dirty Blonde

Let's not split hairs about this, but Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell, and Thomas Meehan's Hairspray is now playing at the Golden Gate Theatre in an infectious celebration of that good ol' '60s rock and roll music that swept America during the early civil rights days. This is a first rate touring production with high energy dancers and singers, great sets, gaudy '60s costumes, beehive hairdos and doo-wop music played brilliantly by the orchestra. All this plus Bruce Vilanch as the queen of the ironing board, wearing tent-sized house dresses, and a personable Keala Settle as the teen Tracy who is ready to change the Baltimore daily television dance party into an integrated program.

Hairspray, which had a tryout in Seattle, opened on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre in August, 2002 with Harvey Fierstein as Mrs. Edna Turnblad, the robust Baltimore housewife. In June 2003 it won eight Tony Awards, including awards for Best Musical and Best Musical score.

Hairspray's plot follows the 1988 John Waters film that starred Divine as Edna Turnblad (Bruce Vilanch), a hard working laundress with an overweight and beehive hairdo-wearing daughter Tracy (Keala Settle). Tracy's greatest dream is not only to get onto Baltimore's most popular daily televised teen dance party, The Corny Collins Show, but to integrate the all-white dance fest. Tracy is infatuated with the blond heartthrob rock singer on the program, Link Larkin (Austin Miller), who is pledged to harebrain, sulky Amber Von Tussel (Jordan Ballard), daughter of the equally snippy Velma Von Tussel (Susan Cella), the producer of the Corny Collins Show. Just how it all comes together is fun to watch with all the goofy touches and good high camp on the part of the great cast. The message of racial harmony is beautifully presented.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman's score is full of wonderful toe-tapping and tongue-in-cheek gems. The group number "Good Morning Baltimore" opens the show and starts the ball rolling - it does not let up for one minute. The melodies are part '60s rock, part gospel plus a showtune shuffle sung by two men. The doo-wop music by a dynamic orchestra will get your juices flowing, and you can't help moving your feet to the beat.

Hairspray's cast is flawless and these young, vibrant people are in synch with as good a musical comedy ensemble as you could find on the New York stage. Bruce Vilanch as the big mama takes a different spin from that of Harvey Fierstein. In New York, everyone was waiting for the next scene with the gravel-throated drag artist. Bruce makes the role a part of the large ensemble so you now see a more balanced production of the zany musical. He does not do an imitation of either Fierstein or Divine, but makes the role his own. He is not as maternal as Harvey, but he convincingly wears the outsized house dresses and gowns. (In the last scene, he looks like the great Sophie Tucker coming down the steps Ziegfeld style.) Vilanch zestfully sings the songs on key and he has great comic timing. He also does a little adlibbing during the showstopping number "Timeless to Me" with Todd Susman who plays Wilber. The two actors are sweet together.

Keala Settle recently joined the cast as Tracy, the teenage heroine. This young and talented artist radiates energy with such exuberance that she dominates the stage whenever she is on the boards. She captivates the audience with "I Can Hear the Bells" and her duet with Bruce, "I'm a Big Girl Now." She can also jam with the rest of the cast.

Austin Miller as Link is a teenage hunk with a great voice to boot. His Elvis style song "It Takes Two" has great lyrics that sound almost like those of Cole Porter. "Lancelot had Guinevere, Mrs. Claus has old St. Nick, Romeo had Juliet and Liz she has her Dick." His duet with Keala is excellent. Terron Brooks, who plays Seaweed J. Stubbs, is a powerhouse when he belts out "Run and Tell That." Sandra DeNise gets some of the greatest laughs as Tracy's friend Penny. She really stops the show with a strong voice singing "Without Love" at the end of the musical.

Jordan Ballard and Susan Cella as daughter and mother Von Tussle are cartoon characters of a villainous duo. Both are good in the roles. Charlotte Crossley as Motormouth Maybelle comes across with a commanding voice in the gospel number "I Know Where I've Been," Todd Susman is fine as Edna's husband, the owner of a joke shop. Joanna Glushak as the gym teacher with eyes for the young girls is a hoot. Troy Britton Johnson as Corny Collins is a Troy Donahue look-a-like and he plays the role well.

Jerry Mitchell's choreography is strictly doo-wop dancing of the early '60s. It's fun, energetic and right in step with the whole production. David Rockwell's scenery design is very good for a touring company. It is almost as good as the New York production, which has permanent sets. The orchestra is first rate and director Jack O'Brien is helming a fast paced production that just zooms along at high speed. The ending to "You Can't Stop the Beat" gives the audience a chance to shake, rattle and roll with the cast.

Hairspray runs through July 3rd at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets can be obtains thru Ticketmaster charge by phone 415-512-7770, at the Orpheum Theatre Box Office, all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers and thru For more information please go to or

Photo: Chris Bennion

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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