‘Hairspray,’ Big Hair and Big Fun with a Theme We Have Yet To Overcome

Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s PNC Broadwai in Pittsburgh presentation of Hairspray is at the Benedum Center this week through January 8th.

By Jessica Neu

Adapted from the 1988 film of the same name, Hairspray, opened on Broadway in 2002 and went on to win 8 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. This the oldest musical in the 2022-23 PNC Broadway series, except for the special engagement of Les Mis 

Hairspray opened on Broadway a year after 9/11 when NYC was still grieving and on high alert for repeat attacks, the show offering big hair, big laughs, and big toe-tapping musical numbers.

What makes Hairspray great is that it is both timely and timeless. It responded to the audience’s needs for humor and escapism in a tense post-9/11 historical moment, but it also addressed significant themes of racism, classism, and sizeism.

Set in 1962 Baltimore, Hairspray tells the story of high school student Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf), who dreams of dancing on the popular teen dance show “The Corny Collins Show.” This American Bandstand-Esque show features the latest music and dance crazes but only allows African Americans to perform once a month on Negro Day. The prejudiced undertones of the script are initially delivered with humor as producer Velma Von Tussle (Addison Garner) and her daughter, Amber Von Tussle (Ryahn Evers), openly reject any attempts at integration from anyone that does not meet their heteronormative idyllic standards including rejecting Tracy and Little Inez (Joi D. McCoy) from performing on the show because of their weight and race respectively. While Tracy grapples with insecurities surrounding her weight, she meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Charlie Bryant III), his friends, and his mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee). Together, they decide to desegregate “The Corny Collins Show” and make every day Negro Day. 

Despite opening night’s sound difficulties, Metcalf carries the show as a spunky, endearing lead. Pittsburgh native Nick Cortazzo brings a swagger and coolness to Tracy’s love interest, Link Larkin, that makes the character feel current and refreshing. Each actor brings their own vocal talents and intelligent acting choices, specifically Garnerwhose portrayal of Von Tussle is accented with clever nuance and well-timed delivery. Andrew Levitt’s hilarious and dynamic portrayal of Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad, shines in numbers such as “Welcome to the 60s,” and Lee’s powerful and commanding Maybelle stands out as the cast delivers every detail of this now iconic show. 

The set is polished and functional, updated with sophisticated lighting designs that add depth to the stage and musical numbers. Robbie Roby’s choreography is a beautiful punctuation in the production. The ensemble dances intricately and skillfully throughout the show, turning numbers such as “The Madison” into one of the show’s highlights.

Audience members will delight in going on this journey with Tracy and her friends, which serves as a reminder of the joy in a big American musical. So how, then, do we see this production of Hairspray? Is it a 20th-anniversary celebration? Is it a revival? Unlike other recent revivals (Oklahoma! Into the Woods, 1776) that have updated their productions to address current social justice “isms,” Hairspray remains relevant without reimagination. One could argue that since 2002, America has made more progress in the area of sizeism than racism, with inclusive body imaging replacing the once unattainable standard of female beauty. While the show’s celebration of body positivity is still timely and necessary in today’s culture, the theme of racial inclusivity is still very relevant as well. The image of Maybelle leading a protest at the end of Act 1 and being struck by a police officer is an all too real example of art imitating life. The protests in Baltimore and across the United States in the 1960s were undoubtedly groundbreaking, but social and racial divides remain today. 

Ultimately Hairspray will make you laugh, sing along and tap your feet. Still, it also represents a timeless relic that debuted in a time of domestic fear, portrays a period of racial reform, and remains relevant in our current moment. 

For show times and tickets to Hairspray visit the Trust’s website by clicking here.

Categories: Reviews

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