Review: HAIRSPRAY at Keller Auditorium

This musical defines "fabulous." It runs through April 2.

By: Mar. 29, 2023
Review: HAIRSPRAY at Keller Auditorium
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You will be hard-pressed to find anything more fun and uplifting to do this week than see HAIRSPRAY, now running at Keller Auditorium as part of the Broadway in Portland season. The musical is a super sassy, high-energy celebration of self-acceptance, inclusivity, and, of course, big hair. It will knock your bobby socks off.

This HAIRSPRAY is a new national tour of the Broadway musical that ran from 2002 to 2009, winning eight Tony awards, including Best Musical. It was based on the 1988 John Waters comedy of the same name (a movie with music, but not a musical), and then made into a movie musical in 2007. I had never seen the stage show, only the movie adaptation, which I thought was just okay. But the production last night absolutely blew me away.

HAIRSPRAY takes place in Baltimore in 1962. Tracy Turnblad is a short, overweight high schooler who loves to dance and wants nothing more in life than to be on "The Corny Collins Show," an after school dance program that she watches on tv every day. When one of the dancers has to leave (for 9 months), Tracy grabs her chance, shrugging off the naysayers who say she'll never succeed because of her size. In the process, she becomes aware of another form of discrimination at the show - all of the Black dancers have to dance in the back, except on the once-a-month "Rhythm and Blues Day," otherwise known as "Negro Day." Not willing to stand for prejudice of any kind, Tracy and some fellow students hatch a plan to integrate the show.

The musical deals with big issues - racism, weight stigma, bullying, and self-doubt, to name just a few - but it does so with such relentless and infectious positivity that you can't help but start believing that we really can make the world a better place for everyone. That may sound like hyperbole, but it's been easy to despair lately. HAIRSPRAY gives us a peek at an ideal world and makes it actually seem within reach. It's hopeful and joyful, and so much fun.

This cast is spectacular. Niki Metcalf, who plays Tracy, is bouncy and bubbly and has a voice that goes through the roof (not easy at the Keller), and Andrew Levitt (aka drag queen Nina West) is beyond fabulous as Tracy's mom, Edna. In a show that's all big lights, big colors, and big personalities, it's hard to steal the spotlight, but that's exactly what Emery Henderson does as Penny Pingleton, Tracy's awkward, quirky best friend. Charles Bryant III shines as Seaweed, the lead dancer on "Rhythm and Blues Day" who teaches Tracy some new moves. And Lauren Johnson (who plays Motormouth Maybelle, record store owner and Seaweed's mom) nearly brought the house down during her stirring solo, "I Know Where I've Been."

The rest of the ensemble proves the saying "There are no small parts, only small actors." Every part in this production is played to the hilt. Sydney Archibald, Melanie Puente Ervin, and Jade Turner create musical magic in their short turn as singing group The Dynamites, while Emanuelle Zeesman squeezes more laughs than seem possible out of three bit parts. The cast is too big to mention them all, but every actor is fully committed to the delicious excessiveness of this show.

I walked into HAIRSPRAY unsure what to expect, loved every minute of it, and then danced all the way home. Literally everyone should see it. HAIRSPRAY runs through April 2. Details and tickets here.

Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel


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