Review: Broadway Across Canada's Presentation of HAIRSPRAY at the National Arts Centre

Hairspray works because it doesn’t try to be revolutionary and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

By: Nov. 17, 2023
Hairspray (Non-Equity) Show Information
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The audience at the opening night performance of Broadway Across Canada’s presentation of Hairspray was buzzing with excitement.  There seemed to be more people than usual for a Tuesday night performance, maybe because Hairspray has widespread appeal or maybe just because it is the first show of the new season. Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad (Caroline Eiseman) a big girl, with big dreams, and an even bigger heart. 

The set for the opening number, “Welcome to Baltimore” was concealed by a fuchsia and royal blue curtain that hinted at what was to come. When the curtain lifted, the audience cheered and laughed out loud in response to the clever set design (by David Rockwell).

Hairspray (Non-Equity)
“Welcome to the 60s” - (from L) Caroline Eiseman as
“Tracy Turnblad,” Greg Kalafatas as “Edna Turnblad
and Company in Hairspray.  Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

What followed was a hugely fun romp through the sixties. With colourful sets, bright costumes and enormous hair (I mean, it is called Hairspray, after all) in a constant swirl around the stage, the show felt like it was on overdrive for two solid hours. There were times that it ventured a little too far into the realm of the ridiculous... even though “You’re Timeless to Me” is a sweet song with a message of love and acceptance, I’m not sure how many times we needed to see Edna (Greg Kalafatas) and Wilber (Ralph Prentice Daniel) playfully slap each other’s bottoms.

Speaking of Edna, I am never sure how I feel about this role. Edna is a heavy set, plain woman who is always played by a male actor, most famously by John Travolta in the 2008 feature film.  In many ways, it is unfortunate that a heavyset female is denied the opportunity to play a role in which she is praised for being beautiful and loved just the way she is, but the tour has continued with the traditional casting. That being said, Kalafatas is a wonderful choice for the role.  He plays Edna less as a caricature and more as a world-weary woman who finds strength and self-confidence in her adventures with her daughter, Tracy. Edna's relationships with Wilber and Tracy feel sincere, even though the audience is fully aware that there is a man in the costume.

Tracy is as bright-eyed as we would expect her to be. Eiseman plays the role with an effervescent energy and an enormous smile. Skyler Shields is clearly enjoying the playboy role of Link Larkin, and makes the character likeable despite his naiveté. At one point, it seems like that might change due to some poor decision making, but Link ultimately redeems himself.

Hairspray (Non-Equity)
The Dynamites - (from L) Ashia Collins, Leiah Lewis and
Kynnedi Moryaé Porter as “The Dynamites” in Hairspray.
Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

The Dynamites (Leiah Lewis, Ashia Collins, and Kynnedi Moryaé Porter) had fabulous costumes (designed by William Ivey Long), great stage presence, and choreography (by Jerry Mitchell) reminiscent of old-school rhythm and blues bands, like The Supremes. Josiah Rogers stole very scene he was in as Seaweed J. Stubbs. The best vocals of the night came from Deidre Lang's (Motormouth Maybelle) performance of "I Know where I've Been". Other supporting roles, including Scarlett Jacques as Penny Pingleton, Caroline Portner as Amber Von Tussle, and Sarah Hayes as Velma Von Tussle were good; the entire cast and ensemble contributed to the fun atmosphere.

Some of the songs (music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman) are forgettable, but there are a few bombastic, catchy tunes. Whatever may be lacking in the music is made up for by the sets, choreography, costumes and amazing chemistry among the cast.

Hairspray (Non-Equity)
“You Can't Stop The Beat” - (centre) Caroline Eiseman
as “Tracy Turnblad” and Company in Hairspray. Photo:
Jeremy Daniel.

Although Hairspray has some important themes about self-confidence, acceptance, and doing what’s right, it isn’t the most groundbreaking show out there. But it works because it doesn’t try to be revolutionary and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I laughed at the zaniness, tapped my feet along to some of the music (especially the incredible finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat”) and had a fun rollicking ride back to the sixties.

Hairspray is in performances through November 19th at the National Arts Centre. Click here for more information or to buy tickets. Check out the rest of Broadway Across Canada’s 2023-2024 season here.

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