Review: Drag Race Star Nina West Leads Hilarious New HAIRSPRAY Tour at Segerstrom Center

This excellent non-equity tour production boasts the same fun and hilarity that previous iterations had, but now with a fresh batch of triple-threats in the cast.

By: Apr. 25, 2023
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Review: Drag Race Star Nina West Leads Hilarious New HAIRSPRAY Tour at Segerstrom Center
Niki Metcalf and Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West).
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Arguably, few stage musical comedies have the kind of expected, reliable way of bringing out hearty laughs and emotional heartstrings from all kinds of audiences quite the way HAIRSPRAY continues to do so with every performance. Still hilarious, thoughtfully progressive, cleverly sardonic, and utterly joyful to experience over and over again, the musical---21 years later---remains a favorite among both rabid Broadway fans and casual theatergoers alike.

From its catchy and memorable 60's-inspired bops written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to its silly-funny yet provocative book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, the stage version of HAIRSPRAY---adapted into a musical from John Waters' 1988 cinematic cult classic of the same name---is purposely fashioned to be a crowd-pleaser from start to finish. The cool thing? It effortlessly succeeds in putting a smile on your face.

And today---as if the universe knew that our increasingly divisive country is in desperate need to revisit this hit 2002 Tony Award-winning musical back on a large stage again---the show has now embarked on a brand new, really top-notch non-equity national tour presented by NETworks Presentations featuring RuPaul's Drag Race fan favorite Nina West (aka Andrew Levitt, out of drag) in the lead role of Edna Turnblad, the matriarch of the Turnblad clan. Continuing the tradition of having a male actor in drag play the role, Edna here is indeed big, blonde, and beautiful---and super, super adorable.

In an inspired bit of casting, Miss Congeniality herself, Nina West, is leading a cast that's giving everyone---including staunch OC conservatives in the audience---huge reasons to fall in love with the show and these endearing characters all over again, as the new tour continues its two-week engagement at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through April 30, 2023 before moving into the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood for a three-week stay starting May 2, 2023.

As always, the story follows the well-meaning but always-in-trouble teenager Tracy Turnblad, an awkward but progressively-minded plus-sized young lady, here played by cute-as-a-button newcomer Niki Metcalf, whose outsized smile matches her outsized singing and dancing talents. From her first oh-oh-oh in "Good Morning, Baltimore" we all instantly fall in love with her, and, therefore, we all root for her to triumph as she struggles to be noticed while also fighting against the injustices she witnesses around her.

Review: Drag Race Star Nina West Leads Hilarious New HAIRSPRAY Tour at Segerstrom Center
Niki Metcalf. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Tracy---whose opening "want song" spells out her simple mission to "eat some breakfast and change the world"---has three main goals: to become the first full-figured "council member" on the local teen dance TV program The Corny Collins Show, to win the attention of the show's resident hottie, and then, later, to once and for all help integrate the show itself so that both the white and black kids can dance together, rather than be separated from each other. It's quite a to-do list.

Unfortunately, like all hero journeys, there are plenty of obstacles in her path. First, there's her evil arch-nemesis, bougie mean girl Amber Von Tussle (a terrific Ryahn Evers), who is determined to humiliate and insult Tracy every chance she gets. Right beside her is her even more evil mom, Velma Von Tussle (the deliciously bitchy Emmanuelle Zeesman), the openly-bigoted former beauty queen who serves as producer/dictator at The Corny Collins Show. Both cantankerous women refuse Tracy's ambitions and are doing all they can to stop her from not only joining the show but also helping to change it.

But another obstacle Tracy must endure---at least, at first---is her own mom, Edna (the winning Levitt), who is so overly protective of her young daughter that she doesn't want her to dream, thinking that big girls like them don't get such lucky breaks in this cruel, cruel world. Not only does Edna hate her daughter's teased-up high hair, she forbids her from auditioning for the open spot on The Corny Collins Show, fearful that Tracy would be made fun of and rejected.

Luckily, Tracy has a lot of kind, open-minded people on her side.

There's Penny Pingleton (scene-stealer Emery Henderson), Tracy's ever-loyal, gum-chewing dim-bulb best friend who supports everything Tracy pursues, even if she doesn't quite understand it. Penny, as expected, falls head-over-penny loafers in lust over another Tracy ally, the studly Seaweed J. Stubbs (the superb Charlie Bryant III), the African-American dance phenom of The Corny Collins Show who has a knack for getting sent to school detention---the magical place where Tracy meets him in and learns some slick dance moves, plus more about the injustices that befall the black kids in their school.

Review: Drag Race Star Nina West Leads Hilarious New HAIRSPRAY Tour at Segerstrom Center
Billy Dawson. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Coincidentally, Seaweed's mom is the rhyme-spouting Motormouth Maybelle (the incredible Sandie Lee), the wonderfully sage DJ who hosts Corny Collins' "Negro Day"---the one day each month that allows African-Americans to appear on the show.

Actually, even Corny Collins himself (played by Billy Dawson) becomes a Tracy ally eventually. He first recognizes and then champions Tracy's potential as a true dance talent, and then, later, supports her efforts not only to change the face of the show, but also to equalize it, defying even the demands of the vindictive Velma who is determined to keep steering the show in the "white direction."

But by far Tracy's biggest supporter is her own father, the kooky Wilbur Turnblad (the adorkable Ralph Prentice Daniel), who encourages her daughter to pursue her dreams, to speak up for what's right, and to follow her heart---even if it's not necessarily popular. It's that kind of progressive, out-of-the-box thinking that led him to fall in love with Tracy's mom, after all. And as the owner of a joke/gag shop, Wilbur is a wonderfully goofy counterpart to Edna's more reserved, guarded laundry service proprietress who, apparently, hasn't left the house in quite some time.

Along the way, Tracy develops a crush on dreamy Corny Collins star Link Larkin (well-coiffed heartthrob Nick Cortazzo), who somehow rejects Amber's nastiness and becomes fascinated and enamored by Tracy's joie-de-vivre. But should he risk his future stardom by supporting Tracy's worthwhile crusade?

Incredibly funny yet still able to express an imbedded pro-equality message, HAIRSPRAY still holds up two decades later, even if some might find some of its racially-tinged jokes slightly cringe-y now. But that discomfort might speak more about where we have landed now in our ever more divided climate. But beyond these so-called "woke" messages---which, uh, by the way, are absolutely awesome---HAIRSPRAY, at least for me, is mostly about its fun songs, its dynamic dance numbers, its ear-candy harmonies, and, yes, its funny lines and gags.

Review: Drag Race Star Nina West Leads Hilarious New HAIRSPRAY Tour at Segerstrom Center
The cast of HAIRSPRAY National Tour. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Don't let that "non-equity" label sway you from seeing the show or coming with unfair preconceptions before stepping back into the 60's. Frankly, I personally found this new HAIRSPRAY just as terrific as ever. Even better, this Broadway-caliber tour production is blessed with some fresh, triple-threat talent that all collectively do a wonderful job (but, perhaps, they probably deserve better pay). Their joy is absolutely infectious.

Production-wise, many of the same creative teams that brought the original Broadway and first national tour companies to life are well represented in this non-equity tour, which is now helmed with palpable caffeinated energy by Matt Lenz, while new choreographer Robbie Roby is on hand to put a new spin (literally) on Jerry Mitchell's original signature moves.

While some of David Rockwell's original set pieces have been notably economized for this new road go-round, the show's visual wow factor remains, thankfully, as eye-popping and colorful as ever (that mesmerizing display during the finalé is so much fun). The addition of Patrick W. Lord's animated video designs add a dazzling Technicolor advancement in the show's overall aesthetics while Paul Miller's reimagined lighting designs (based on the original designs from Kenneth Posner) keep every scene lively. Of course, William Ivey Long's costumes still provide all that sartorial pow, enhanced further by the hair and wig designs by Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia (kinda important with the word 'hair' in the title).

I do wish that these Broadway tours coming into Segerstrom Center would enhance soloist mics a tad more above the music (must be the acoustics at Orchestra level), but that is a minor, fixable adjustment. With that said, the show's score---featuring orchestrations by Harold Wheeler---is so glorious to hear live again, reproduced here via conductor Julius LaFlamme.

And man... this cast can saaaang.

Levitt/Ms. West is a wonderfully vivid, lovingly endearing Edna Turnblad, peppering her excellent performance with discernible choices I absolutely fell for during her OC opening night performance. From her pleasantly inviting singing voice to her effortless comedic chops, this Edna is one of my most favorite iterations of the role I've ever seen. Her chemistry with Metcalf's spitfire Tracy is just darling, as is her rapport with Daniel's Wilbur.

I was also most impressed with Lee's quiet-storm line delivery and power vocals as Motormouth Maybelle that I felt like I was transported to Sunday worship services. That talent is definitely a heavenly gift and it was remarkable to witness in this production. Bryant III's Seaweed and Evers' Penny make a great pairing as do Cortazzo's lovable himbo Link and Metcalf's plucky Tracy.

Kudos also to Kelly Barberito for stepping in to make memorable turns as several female characters that included the female prison guard and Penny's amusingly prudish mom, as well as to Zeesman for stepping in as Velma, who gives some of the evening's most divaliciously shrill and evil line readings. Joi D. McCoy makes a memorable turn as Little Inez, Seaweed's little sister, while Greg Kalafatas is clearly having lots of fun playing not only Ultra Clutch owner Mr. Spritzer but also the school principal, and the excitable Mr. Pinky, the owner of the Hefty Hideaway.

And a special shout-out to the trio of awesome ladies who sang as the incredible Dynamites: Sydney Archibald, Melanie Puente Ervin, and Jade Turner---wow, those are some killer vocals!

In this harmonious ensemble's talented hands, all of HAIRSPRAY's memorable songs such as "Good Morning, Baltimore," "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now," "Welcome To The 60s," "Run And Tell That," the still stirring "I Know Where I've Been," and, of course, the seemingly non-stop "You Can't Stop The Beat" are all wonderfully and vigorously performed. Of all the musicals I've loved over the years, this is the one show where I love singing along to all the full ensemble voice parts rather than the lead vocals because they are so well constructed (no worries, I didn't sing along during the performance---no one paid to hear me sing, after all haha).

It's shocking to think that in some parts of our country, performances of HAIRSPRAY are now legally considered a criminal act. Thanks to fear-mongering, misguided, and, frankly, ignorant legislation targeting shows featuring drag acts, the art form is now under constant unfair attack, even as more devastating matters are literally harming people with actual violence. To see that art form celebrated and revered here in its most joyful, most musical of forms is a testament to what many ignorant people fail to understand and are missing out on experiencing when they choose fear over understanding. Much like the misguided, prejudiced characters in the story, justice, one hopes, will and should win out over their loud, ignorant voices.

Twenty-one years later, after countless local, regional, and touring productions (as well as a big screen adaptation and live TV broadcast), HAIRSPRAY is still a perfect blend of story, laughs, music, heart, and soul. Featuring colorful, arresting visuals, a still ear worm-filled songbook, an inclusive, justice-promoting storyline, and a cast of impressive fresh singers and dancers, this new tour of HAIRSPRAY does not disappoint. Right from the first drum beats of the band, right up until the cast takes their final encore bows, this show had me and everyone smiling from ear to ear and cheering loudly.

How can anyone in their right mind think any of this joyful inclusiveness is bad and wrong...and a criminal act?

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ *

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Photos by Jeremy Daniel, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

Performances of HAIRSPRAY continue at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA through April 30, 2023. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.

The show will also play the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood beginning May 2, 2023.




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