Review: Touring Production of Hairspray Is a Frizzy Re-Creation of the Original
Based on the John Waters 1987 film, the musical Hairspray follows heavy-set but dynamic Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf) as she becomes a local Baltimore celebrity and social-justice activist. Hairspray captures the innocence of early 1960s American youth as the nation wakes up from the glaze of post-war prosperity, and takes a stand against racial and social injustice. Tracy, her insecure mom, Edna (Andrew Levitt a.k.a. Nina West), and jokester dad Wilbur (Ralph Prentice Daniel), become enlightened through their friendships with members of the African American community, while Tracy finds love and fame are at risk if she speaks up for the downtrodden.
But misdirection and miscasting have stopped the beat of the touring Hairspray, that is now stopping at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Though all the elements, including the production design and re-creation of the choreography, remind audiences of the sparkling original production, tour director Matt Lenz allows his leads to squander the hilarity of their characters, so that the production may come off as a disappointment for fans.
The hysterical Broadway score by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman includes pastiche songs of the era like “The Nicest Kids in Town,” “I Can Hear the Bells,” and “Welcome to the ’60s,” while also evoking the struggle and protest in the inspiring “I Know Where I’ve Been.” The book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan has stinging satirical moments, but often crosses the line to be over-the-top, like having Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee) rhyme every sentence of dialogue.
The supporting players are the engine that keeps this production from imploding, particularly Lee, whose singing voice shakes the rafters; Charlie Bryant III as Seaweed, whose energetic singing and dancing stirs joy; and Emery Henderson as Penny, whose comic timing and deadpan responses land like bullets from a sniper. The ensemble features outstanding singers and dancers who shine throughout the evening.
The leads, however, require tighter direction. They are not just cartoon characters; they are over-inflated floats in the Macy’s Day Parade. None of the leads– Levitt, Prentice Daniel, Metcalf, Nick Cortazzo as Link, Ryahn Evers as Amber, nor Addison Garner as Velma – evoke any believable emotions, and instead grimace, guffaw, and squint their way through their dialogue.
Levitt is a talented performer. He showcased that as Miss Congeniality of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 11, where his acting and comic chops led to several challenge wins. But here, he lacks the humanity that made Edna so relatable and funny. The driving force of the musical, that Tracy’s innate dancing talent wins her entrance on a television show, only works if the actor playing Tracy is an extraordinary dancer, but Metcalf never gets to display the gymnastic and fluid moves that are supposed to blow the other characters away. It could be the extremely heavy wig that sits atop her head, but she rarely moves her upper body with style.
The innovations of the original still dazzle. David Rockwell’s sets, especially the inventive opening shot that recreates an over-the-head camera angle on Tracy in bed, are delightful. William Ivey Long’s costumes are cotton candy colors of confection. The orchestra sounds buoyant and crisp. Robbie Roby recreates Jerry Mitchell’s choreography with the perfect vigor.
Hairspray has been a wild hit since its original run on Broadway in 2002. The current tour features much that delighted audiences for over 20 years, but without a lead cast to ground the audience, the parody falls flat.