By Owen Bryant
Broadway has returned to Reno for another season of musical theater, and this time it started with a big bang. The beloved 2002 Broadway smash-hit “Hairspray” boogied its way onto the stage this week, delighting both young and old—and this is certainly a show that will appeal to all ages.
There is plenty of fun and fanfare to keep your toes tapping, but it floats innocently above a theme of the civil strife that defined much of 1960s America.
Meet Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf), a giddily enthusiastic, optimistic teenage girl. It is 1962, in Baltimore, and Tracy spends most of her time at home with her parents Edna and Wilbur (Greg Kalafatas and Ralph Prentice Daniel) and her lone friend Penny Pingleton (Emery Henderson).
Both high school outcasts, Tracy and Penny spend their after school evenings watching the Corny Collins show, a local teenage dance show that features Tracy’s crush, Link Larkin (Nick Cortazzo). To Tracy’s dismay, Link’s girlfriend Amber Von Tussle (Ryahn Evers) is also star of the show, since it is produced by her mother Velma (Addison Garner).
Another sour point is the fact that the show is very, VERY white, and Tracy looks forward to the one day of the week it hosts “Negro Day” since it has better music and dance moves. These things only make Tracy as determined as ever to land a spot on the show and make some seriously needed changes, both on the show and beyond, despite Edna’s worried protests.
From the very first scene “Hairspray” is like candy for the senses. The characters and minimal, but detailed sets are brightly colored and cartoonish.
Each of the actors embodied their characters well, a standout being Kalafatas as Edna. Since Divine’s performance in the original John Waters film from ‘88, Edna has typically been played by a man, so audiences hold their breath to see how each actor will fill her shoes. Metcalf was as electric as you’d expect her to be as the ambitious Tracy.
But the real gem of the show was Sandie Lee as Motormouth Maybelle. She’s the owner of a “Black” record store and matriarch to all the misfits who dare suggest integration is a good thing. She owned the stage with swagger and grace, in a towering wig, proving she really is Big, Blonde, and Beautiful.
“Hairspray” doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is a nice change of pace from some of the heavier shows seen last season. Considering its original source material, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But that is where one fault may be found.
It is hard not to compare the original film and the musical it begat. But John Waters, even in his most family-friendly movie, still injected his signature bite into an otherwise tame film. It still hinted at that edginess—that lewdness—of his earlier films, if ever so slightly.
He also approached the issue of racial discrimination with a certain cynicism not present in the updated version. For this reason, the musical’s treatment of such a poignant issue comes off as a tad simplistic and rosy. Tracy appears as even more of a Pollyanna and White Savior than before.
And all this is a little uncomfortable considering the things we are still dealing with 60 years later. It would be nice if the issue of integration and racism could be solved by just dancing together in beehives and pompadours, but we all know that’s not happening.
However, a show like this shouldn’t be held too responsible for solving the world’s woes. As I said, earlier, at its core, “Hairspray” is about heartwarming fun through the lens of the frisky hair-hoppin’ 1960s dance scene, and there it definitely succeeds. If anything it can plant a seed in all of our minds to look at our own world and consider how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.
- Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan
- Music by Marc Shaiman
- Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman
- Original Direction by Jack O’Brien
- Choreography by Jerry Mitchell
- Saturday, October 1 at 2pm
- Saturday, October 1 at 8pm
- Sunday, October 2 at 1pm
- Sunday, October 2 at 7pm
Single seats at $40. Other pricing varies by section.
For details visit https://pioneercenter.com/Online/article/Hairspray.