BWW Reviews: Arvada Center's HAIRSPRAY - So Alive!

HAIRSPRAY (music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman, Book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan), winner of 8 Tony awards, makes its regional debut at the Arvada Center running now through July 17th.  HAIRSPRAY follows the crazy adventures of Tracy Turnblad, a girl with a big heart, big hair and big dreams of integration! 

True fact for you - HAIRSPRAY has deep roots in history. No. Really. It does. See, the fictional Corny Collins Show is actually based on the real Buddy Deane Show, which aired on WJZ-TV in Baltimore, Maryland from 1957 to 1964, and was the inspiration for John Waters' original 1988 film. Rumor has it that Deane wanted to integrate the show, but the white suits in charge would have none of it, and when Deane stayed persistent, his show was cancelled. In the meantime, just a little farther north in our fine territories, American Bandstand debuted in 1952 on Philadelphia's WFIL-TV with Bob Horn as the host. Dick Clark took over hosting duties in 1956, and when AB went national in 1957 Clark and the producers brought Black dancers on for the first time, although they were not allowed to dance with the white teenagers. By the mid-1960s, however, American Bandstand was fully integrated and enjoyed a decades-long run as the most popular televised dance show in history, taking its final bow in 1987.

Okay. History lesson over, but it's worth mentioning because when an outstanding musical like
HAIRSPRAY comes around it's a good reminder of how far we've come, yet how far we still have to go.

The star of the show, chubby high-schooler Tracy Turnblad, is portrayed by a skinnier-than-the-
character Megan Kane, and she's got a set of pipes on her that will make you want to get up out of your seat and do the jitterbug! She owned this role, no doubt, bringing in subtle characteristics to make the title character her own. Julia Perrotta as Tracy's BFF Penny Pingleton has the best lines in the show. She stole my heart with her wide-eyed exuberance and unconditional support of Tracy's dream to be a dancer on the Corny Collins Show. Jim J. Bullock is a wonderful Edna Turnblad and paired perfectly with D.P. Perkins as Wilbur. Their duet, You're Timeless to Me, is heartwarming, funny, and precious. The audience loved them! Gabrielle Goyette as Ms. Motormouth Maybelle, the hostess-with-the-mostest of 'Negro Day,' brought down the house with her soulful, impassioned rendition of I Know Where I've Been. Other stellar performances include Kirsti Carnahan's animated and devious portrayal of Velma von Tussle, and the fabulous voices of Travis Nesbitt (Link Larkin), Melvin BranDon Logan (Seaweed) and Aisha Jackson, whose character Little Inez is based on Ruby Bridges, the first Black child allowed to attend an all-white school post Brown v. Board of Education legislation.

The energy that constitutes a musical like HAIRSPRAY - with its bee-boppin', potato-mashin', hip-
twistin', hand-jivin' liveliness - must stay consistent and true to the era and the story. The music,
choreography, singing, and acting must all be in sync to maintain the audience's energy, otherwise it's just a bunch of singing heads on stage and that's no fun. This cast more than met the challenges inherent in a musical of this scope - not only physically and artistically, but also in the production's treatment of important historical events. In other words, they rocked our bobby socks off, but they also brought poignancy to their roles to help us remember how things were. Director Rod A. Lansberry and music director David Nehls are to be applauded for putting together such a wonderfully diverse cast and tapping into their respective talents. The choreography by Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck is some of the most energetic I have ever seen - an essential element for a musical that has a dance show as its catalyst for social change.

The set design by scenic designer Brain Mallgrave matched the energy of the cast and was very practical with all the potato-mashin', hip-twistin', and hand-jivin' that was going on, and consisted of one main set (Corny's TV studio) that was appropriately alive with vivid pastel colors. This gave way to smaller, mobile sets that were both electronically and stagehand moved, although I still can't figure out which was used more because the set changes we so fluid I barely noticed them. The small details in the Turnblad home and Wilbur's shop that signal the end of a one decade and the beginning of the next set the tone of the era and were fun to visually explore.

The costumes were as bright as Project Runway's Mondo Guerra's personality. Many of the costume colors were mismatched and seemed contradictory (a green suit with purple shoes...what?!), but this worked well as a technique to symbolize the concept of seemingly oppositional world's colliding. Also, the use of all the different (i.e. diverse) textiles on the costumes made for a visually marvelous picture (Welcome to the Sixties and You Can't Stop the Beat are especially colorful numbers). The sheer amount of wigs that were deployed for this musical should earn costume designer Sarah Opstad a standing ovation. She somehow imbued each wig with its own personality, which helped maintain the overall tone of the story and the music. And no one's wig flew off during the dances!

While the movie versions (1988, 2007) are fun to watch, nothing beats a live show. With added dialogue in the live version, HAIRSPRAY is an excellent reminder of just how good a live musical can be (again, thank you Penny).

So mash-potato, hip-twist, hand-jive, cha-cha, bee-bop, stroll and swing your way to the Arvada Center and experience HAIRSPRAY for yourself, playing now through July 17th. For tickets or information, contact the Arvada Center box office at 720-898-7200 or visit them online at

Photo Credits - P. Switzer

Megan Kane as Tracy Turnblad

Travis Nesbit as Link and Megan Kane as Tracy Turnblad

Jim J. Bullock as Edna and Megan Kane as Tracy

Gabrielle Goyette as Motormouth Maybelle

Julia Perrotta as Penny Pingleton and Megan Kane as Tracy Turnblad

Jim J. Bullock and D.P. Perkins as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad

Nick Henderson as Corny Collins and Company

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From This Author Michael Mulhern

Michael Mulhern has lived in Denver and been active in it's theater scene for over 10 years. He is originally from Wiesbaden, Germany and graduated (read more...)