SALT LAKE CITY — Some Broadway shows can be a struggle to enjoy because of their heavy themes and sobering stories. Next to Normal or Spring Awakening come to mind. And then there is Hairspray, which anyone can enjoy because it is such a charming, positive show full of incredibly catchy songs. Though the play discusses its characters’ struggles against racism and body shaming, Hairspray does it in an easy-to-digest way that makes it one of the most popular modern Broadway musicals. Now, a touring production of this beloved show is playing at the Eccles for a short run and is definitely worth a watch.
Hairspray burst onto the Broadway scene in 2002 with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name. Set in 1962, Hairspray focuses on teenage Tracy Turnblad (played by Niki Metcalf), who is a plus-size girl who loves to dance. Tracy dreams of being on a local show, The Corny Collins Show, where her big crush Link Larkin performs every day. Metcalf sings the opening number “Good Morning Baltimore” with gusto and with an energy that immediately makes her character endearing. To everyone’s surprise (including her own!), Tracy successfully auditions, which means she meets Link. This leads her to sing the best song of the show, “I Can Hear the Bells,” in which she fantasizes about a life with her crush. Metcalf makes the song so funny and easy to relate with, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
Nick Cortazzo really shines as Link, which can be a bland pretty-boy role. But Cortazzo brings some physical comedy to his performance and has terrific chemistry with Metcalf. His song “It Takes Two” was a highlight of the night, and Cortazzo’s voice and performance makes the song much more memorable than in most productions of Hairspray.
The touring production is directed by Matt Lenz, and it has all the energy and cheerfulness that a production of Hairspray needs. The choreography Robbie Roby is also strong, particularly in the Corny Collins numbers like “The Nicest Kids in Town.” The costumes by William Ivey Long were for the most part fine, but I particularly liked the final red dress for Edna Turnblad and a polka dotted dress for Little Inez. The wigs by Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia were big, bold and beautiful especially in the “Cooties” number.
But with so much artistic excellence, the production’s weak links are more apparent. Particularly, some of David Rockwell‘s sets were small and underwhelming, such as the set for The Corny Collins Show, which looked kind of dinky. Last year I reviewed a production of Hairspray at Draper Amphitheatre, and that production’s set for the TV show was much more impressive set with a full studio and a wall of live closed circuit TV feed of the action broadcast upstage. There was nothing that spectacular in this national touring company, but the sets are adequate at establishing location and serving as a backdrop.
However, there were some standout set pieces; Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway store was big and colorful and enhanced by the bold pink and purple polka-dot projections on the background screen. Motormouth Maybelle’s record store also looked great with a sparkly rainbow entrance way with walls and ceiling covered in records. The scenes in the record store not only look great but are elevated by strong performances from the whole Black ensemble. Charlie Bryant III is an energetic dancer and singer with “Run and Tell That,” and Lauren Johnson gives the show a gravitas it needs with the emotional “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
Likewise, the acting for most of the cast was just fine. The actors are well trained and give enjoyable performances, but Metcalf, Cortazzo, Bryant, and Johnson are the only standouts. Andrew Levitt (known professionally in the drag world as Nina West) had fun moments as Edna, but could have leaned into the camp of the role more. Levitt and his onstage husband, Ralph Prentice Daniel as Wilbur Turnblad, lack the familiarity of long-term relationship. Just as with the set, it is likely that Utah audiences have seen equivalent performances from local casts of Hairspray.
In an article for The New York Times, Waters said about the musical “if it’s a hit, there will be high school productions, and finally the fat girl and the drag queen will get the starring parts.” Fortunately, Hairpsray was a hit, and 20 years later it is still so refreshing to see a body diverse production where an overweight young lady (and her mother) are treated like any other teenage protagonist. Tracy finds love, rebels against authority, and dances when she feels the urge, regardless of what society thinks. It makes the entire show endearing and hopeful. Hopeful that maybe we could be as accepting in 2023 as the onstage version of Baltimore in 1962? Acceptance is not as easy as it might appear in Hairspray, but a little encouragement from a fun night of entertainment never hurt anyone, especially with songs and dancing as catchy as this delightful show. Don’t miss Hairspray at the Eccles this week.