Skip to main content Skip to footer site map
Review: HAIRSPRAY at Benedum Center Is A New Golden Oldie

Review: HAIRSPRAY at Benedum Center Is A New Golden Oldie

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

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.

Rock Band Kansas Returns To Pittsburgh For Their 50th Anniversary Tour! Photo
Rich Engler Presents has announced the return of KANSAS 50th Anniversary Tour – Another Fork in the Road live at The Benedum Center on Friday, June 2, 7:30 p.m. Pittsburgh is the first night of their tour.

Rapper Ys1 To Perform at The New Hazlett Stage in February Photo
Hip-hop artist Ys1 (Yusef Shelton Da First) will set fire to the New Hazlett stage with IGNITE, an all-new hip-hop experience.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Names Adam W. McKinney as New Artistic Director Photo
After a comprehensive international search aided by Management Consultants for the Arts (MCA), the Board of Directors of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT) has announced the appointment of Adam W. McKinney as artistic director. He will be the company's seventh artistic director in its rich 54-year-history. McKinney, PBT's first artistic director of color, will begin his role in March 2023.  

Student Blog: A Day in the Life Of A Music Student Photo
Music students have a busy schedule. Between double majors, classes, friendships, and practices, it can be crazy. Here’s my day in the life of a music student, my typical Monday.

From This Author - Greg Kerestan

A long-time BWW regular, Greg Kerestan is proud to join the staff of his favorite website. Greg is a graduate of Duquesne University and Seton Hill University, where he studied both theatre and Eng... (read more about this author)

Review: HAIRSPRAY at Benedum Center Is A New Golden OldieReview: HAIRSPRAY at Benedum Center Is A New Golden Oldie
January 6, 2023

This super-sixties musical continues to feel fresh, while also seeming like it's been around forever.

Review: A CHRISTMAS STORY Is A Perfect Salty Cookie at Pittsburgh Public TheaterReview: A CHRISTMAS STORY Is A Perfect Salty Cookie at Pittsburgh Public Theater
December 9, 2022

The smartest, stupidest, most beloved Christmas tale of the twentieth century comes to life, and then some, in Michael Berresse's farcical production.

Review: FRONT PORCH CABARET Reunites Old Friends at Front Porch TheatricalsReview: FRONT PORCH CABARET Reunites Old Friends at Front Porch Theatricals
November 30, 2022

Front Porch announces a season of Finn and Sondheim, in an evening of song and stories. As far as I'm concerned, if you want to measure the pulse of the Pittsburgh theatre scene, you will feel it the most intensely and regionally in Front Porch. The company's mission to produce exciting musicals specifically highlighting the talents of Pittsburgh-area artists makes it feel somehow organically part of the community; much as I love seeing the talents of major Broadway stars at Pittsburgh CLO every years, there's a thrill in seeing a Front Porch show and knowing 'all of this was made here.' Though Front Porch's impresario and producer Leon S. Zionts passed away several years ago, he has remained an active member of its creative community, as the shortlist of shows he crafted with fellow producers Bruce E. G. Smith and Nancy D. Zionts continues to guide the company's mission statement forward.

Review: HADESTOWN Exceeds the Hype at Benedum CenterReview: HADESTOWN Exceeds the Hype at Benedum Center
November 20, 2022

The gritty folk-opera sensation isn't the second coming of Hamilton, it's the second coming of RENT.

Review: FRANKENSTEIN Resurrects a Classic at Prime StageReview: FRANKENSTEIN Resurrects a Classic at Prime Stage
November 11, 2022

What did our critic think of FRANKENSTEIN at Prime Stage? I'm a lifelong horror buff, devouring the Famous Monsters of Filmland on celluloid and printed page, as well as the artsy, philosophical 'elevated horror' that has become a literary and cinematic movement in the last decade. Both the schlocky and the thoughtful branches of horror can both trace their roots back to the shadow cast by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its innumerable adaptations. For whatever reason, her novel itself has never been a favorite of mine, though I love the way she bucked convention and gender roles to invent literary science fiction and elevated horror. Maybe it's because Frankenstein has transcended being a character on the page in a story with a beginning and end, and become a genuine folk icon. Even a perfect adaptation of Shelley's novel will feel incomplete because the idea of Frankenstein is now so much bigger than the text of Frankenstein. Here, science fiction writer Lawrence C. Connolly and director Liam Macik thread the needle of the Frankenstein myth in an adaptation that stays unusually true to Shelley's novel but nods to sources beyond.