Review: HAIRSPRAY at Benedum Center Is A New Golden Oldie

Featuring Pittsburgh's Nick Cortazzo, the tour runs January 3-8

By: Jan. 06, 2023
Review: HAIRSPRAY at Benedum Center Is A New Golden Oldie
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When I was in ninth grade, back in 2004, my school's touring show choir (go ahead, call it a glee club, everyone else does) started performing a long medey of songs from around that current Broadway season. It had hits like The Producers, Avenue Q, Spamalot, Aida, The Boy from Oz, Sunset Boulevard, Wicked, Urinetown and Hairspray. Jump forward almost twenty years, and only one of those shows is still running... but the school is still using the "Broadway Medley" because the songs are so good. It's hard to believe Hairspray in particular is only twenty years old; thanks to a truly stacked score and a great film adaptation in 2007, Hairspray feels like it's genuinely been around and in the public consciousness since the sixties.

Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblatt (Niki Metcalf) is short, fat and lower-class, but she can dance as well as anyone she knows, even well enough to be accepted by the black kids on the other side of town. She dreams of dancing on the Dick-Clark-esque "Corny Collins Show," but queen bee Amber (Ryahn Evers) and her producer mother Velma (Addison Garner) do their best to keep her down. As Tracy fights for her place in the spotlight and her budding relationship with teen heartthrob Link (Pittsburgh native Nick Cortazzo), her off-the-cuff support of integration makes her a media lightning rod and leads her to an alliance with DJ and activist Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee).

The show's most iconic character doesn't appear in that plot description, because she's mostly comic relief, but everyone will agree that Hairspray belongs to its Edna Turnblatt. The closest thing to an American panto dame, Edna is Tracy's wisecracking, plus-sized agoraphobic mother, played to perfection here by Andrew Levitt, better known as Drag Race legend Nina West. Edna is a role for a singing comedian, originated by leather-lunged Harvey Fierstein and famously played by Bruce Vilanch, John Pinette and Michael McKean. These are big shoes (and a big dress) to fill, but Levitt fills it with panache, with whip-smart comic timing and a voice that goes from soft and maternal to "nightmare demon from hell" when Edna gets riled up. It's the perfect star vehicle for someone who can move from high to low comedy as easily as from high to low drag.

The rest of the cast is just as good. Niki Metcalf sings and dances up a storm, and her slightly naive pluck never fails to get laughs. Thankfully, she eschews the nasal bray so often associated with the role of Tracy. Nick Cortazzo has the sharpest dance moves and the sharpest hair onstage, making him a perfect fit for the sensitive himbo role. Sandie Lee's Motormouth almost brings down the house with her big eleven o'clock number "I Know Where I've Been." Across the board, the singing and dancing is sharp and stylized, fitting Jerry Mitchell's famously cartoonish Sixties choreography perfectly.

The show has changed a bit since the last time I saw the Broadway run: the orchestra has been downsized a bit, and a number of the film's musical embellishments have been added. Most notable is a brief reprise of "Welcome to the Sixties" for Edna where she sings John Travolta's new verse from the film. I wouldn't say Hairspray exists in the shadow of its film version to the extent that something like Chicago does, but comparisons are inevitable. Granted, the film does have its merits over the stage version: the pacing is better on film, no one can beat the impossibly smooth James Marsden (king of the modern movie musical) as Corny Collins, and the show's intentionally kitch Googie-inspired art design isn't quite as memorable as the midcentury Baltimore recreated for the film. But Jack O'Brien's zippy direction, a set that seems in constant motion, and those unforgettably colorful William Ivey Long costumes make the show a merry-go-round of questionable taste in the best way. After all, this IS based on a John Waters film, albeit his "mainstream" one. So if you love the sixties, or Broadway, or movies, or midcentury modern aesthetics, this is definitely the show for you. Run and tell THAT.


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