Touring 'Hairspray' Is a Big Fat Can of Fun

Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; music by Marc Shaiman; lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman; based upon the New Line Cinema film written and directed by Jon Waters; direction by Jack O'Brien; choreography by Jerry Mitchell; orchestrations by Harold Wheeler; musical director/conductor Jim Vukovich; scenery design by David Rockwell; costumes designed by William Ivey Long; lighting designed by Kenneth Posner; sound designed by Steve C. Kennedy; wigs and hair designed by Paul Huntley

Featured cast in order of appearance:

Tracy Turnblad, Keala Settle
Corny Collins, Paul McQuillan
Amber Von Tussle, Tara Macri
Link Larkin, Aaron Tveit
Prudy Pingleton, Jane Blass
Edna Turnblad, J. P. Dougherty
Penny Pingleton, Caissie Levy
Velma Von Tussle, Susan Henley
Wilbur Turnblad, Jim J. Bullock
Seaweed J. Stubbs, Alan Mingo, Jr.
The Dynamites, Karen Burthwright, Amanda DeFreitas, Anastacia McCleskey
Gym Teacher, Jane Blass
Inez, Naturi Naughton
Motormouth Maybelle, Charlotte Crossley
Matron, Jane Blass

Hairspray(Akron)%20%20%2024.JPG" />Okay. My eyes and ears could have been deceiving me. I was coming down with a really bad cold and everything seemed a little fuzzy. But I could have sworn that the opening number "Good Morning, Baltimore" of the national touring company's production of "Hairspray" now playing in Boston through October 16 was canned. By that I mean the music sounded prerecorded and Keala Settle as Tracy Turnblad appeared to be lipsyncing.

I doubt that this was the case, since a peek into the orchestra pit (and at the program) during intermission revealed that there were a dozen live musicians, only three of whom played synthesizers. The rest were assigned to guitars, percussion, horns, reeds and trombones. Yet the sound mix and amplification produced such an electronic quality that it seemed as if the music and vocals were coming from somewhere other than the stage – namely, the twin towers of speakers positioned at either end of the proscenium.

Eventually my ears adjusted and I was soon swept away by the irresistible characters and infectious tunes of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's Tony Award-winning musical send up which faithfully translates Jon Waters' 1988 camp movie satire about a robust teenager who sets racial integration in motion in 1962 Baltimore by bringing the Motown sound to Corny Collins' all-white (but definitely not all American) television dance show. The stage version of "Hairspray" strikes a perfect balance between music and message. Without ever becoming silly and superficial or taking itself too seriously, this touring production is full of talented actors who turn potentially outrageous caricatures into believable and endearing people – and even make the villains seem likable.

Hairspray(Akron)%20%20%2004.JPG" />The cast member who most directly challenges our willing suspension of disbelief is, of course, our heroine Tracy's mother, the rotund and rough-speaking Edna Turnblad, played in classic drag by a delightfully droll J. P. Dougherty. S/he shows fierce maternal pride one minute and a self-conscious vulnerability the next as she first encourages her daughter to stand up for what she believes and then hesitates to do the same herself for fear of being ridiculed by more "normal" members of society. "Welcome to the '60s" and "Big, Blonde & Beautiful" are wonderful "coming out" songs in which she musters the courage to leave the safety of her home and laundry and venture out into a brave new world of self assurance, revolution, and fashion.

The entire Turnblad clan is a delight. Keala Settle gives a breakout performance as Tracy, raising her sure voice to the rafters in numbers like "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" and "I Can Hear the Bells" but also showing a great deal of winsome charm in her power ballads "It Takes Two" and "Without Love" sung with her hunky heartthrob, Link Larkin. As the ever faithful and loving (albeit geeky) husband and dad Wilbur Turnblad, Jim J. Bullock is captivating. He manages to show us the heart of gold that beats beneath his horn rimmed glasses and ultra plaid jacket. His duet, "Timeless to Me," an old soft shoe number that he sings and dances affectionately with Dougherty as Edna, turns out to be the show-stopping highlight of the evening. An earthy moment in which Wilbur impulsively admires Edna's physical assets ends up causing Bullock to break into tears of unscripted laughter while Dougherty, in complete deadpan, strokes his cheek and delivers his next sequence of uproarious lines with loving consolation.

Hairspray(Akron)%20%20%2054.JPG" />This "Hairspray" would be an out and out sensation if the same kind of chemistry and unforced natural comic timing shown by Bullock and Dougherty were evident throughout the cast. While every single performer has carved out a unique and entertaining persona, the individual energies don't quite gel into a seamless, free flowing whole. Each scene and musical number is free-standing – well executed, presented with enthusiasm, almost its own show stealer. Somehow, though, together they lack that all important spark of spontaneity or sense of continuity with the numbers that precede them. Ultimately bits like Jane Blass' Mommy Dearest take on Prudy Pingleton, her loony and lecherous lesbian Gym Teacher, and her "Big Dollhouse" prison Matron who brandishes a big stick garner huge laughs, but they also play like separate and distinct vaudeville acts.

The supporting cast is uniformly solid. Tara Macri and Susan Henley are delightfully devious as the manipulative teen star wannabe Amy Von Tussle and her uber stage mother and former beauty queen, "Miss Baltimore Crabs," Velma Von Tussle. Paul McQuillan is a perfectly dapper and always smiling-for-the-camera dance show host Corny Collins. Aaron Tveit takes the stage commandingly as the handsome, hip-shaking and somewhat shallow teen idol Link Larkin but also shows a tender, more sincere side to his personality in his deepening relationship with Tracy. Caissie Levy as Tracy's awkward best friend Penny Pingleton and Alan Mingo, Jr. as the smooth stepping and smoother talking Seaweed J. Stubbs give us a hot and throbbing interracial couple who prompt more than one wise crack from Seaweed's younger sister Inez, played with great spunk by Naturi Naughton. Rounding out the cast with their big gospel-like voices are Charlotte Crossley as the rhyming Motormouth Maybelle and Karen Burthwright, Amanda DeFreitas, and Anastacia McCleskey as the Motown girl group, the Dynamites.

With such a great book and score and such talented performers on board, this touring "Hairspray" could be a knockout. What it needs is a little more styling gel and a little less formula from the can. A looser hold would put just the right amount of spring back into this over processed do.

 

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From This Author Jan Nargi

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