Readers of this magazine probably don't need me to remind them that Hairspray, the musical, is based upon the movie of the same name, written and directed by John Waters. Cartoon-bold in its thinking and its cinematic presentationfeaturing both Divine and an as-yet-uncelebrated Rikki Lakeit is now a Broadway long-run hit. The show opened in Toronto with a mostly Canadian ensemble, and is providing audiences with plenty of howling pleasure.
The premise of "overweight teenage girl wins the heart of young beefcake" is a sunny hymn that someone like Stephen King could as easily have turned brutal. But with Waters' snide and warped sneer behind the pen and the camera, the film was silly fun. In translating the screenplay to the musical stage, much is retained and there's still a lot of fun to be had. But, finally, there's the whiff of rule-by-committee that sanitizes an otherwise welcome subversion.
The most striking quality of this production is its explosive energy. Dominated by a cast of young performers with nerve ends crackling through their terrific costumes (William Ivey Long adds another trophy to his resume), the show rarely slows down long enough to permit any think time. And that's as it should be since there is nothing to think about. That said, there is one serious misstep which is where I detected fiscal override: the penultimate scene contains a gospel-ish tune, "I Know Where I've Been", the aim of which is to metamorphose the proceedings from lightweight satire to heavyweight social commentary. Fran Jaye, the lead on the song, has a massive voice (lyrics get totally swallowed in the grunting and growling, but that's probably not a major loss) but it's the very concept that fails to please. Expecting one extended belt tune to encapsulate the civil rights movement and the foreshadowing of racial change in America might, in other material, be well-intentioned. Given the format here, it is plain cynical. And I think that this liberal back-pat extends to the finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat", another relentless tune that tells us the tide of change is unstoppable. (And as with the former song, the lyrics are impossible to make out even though the refrain is repeated until the audience is on its feet, screaming and clapping.)
But I did have fun, and the staging, including every design element, is a tribute to what money can buy. The tickets are pricey, but this is a show where you do see the bucks transformed into sets and costumes and wigs (hundreds of those, it seems!) and rocking lights and special effects and on and on. As the woman to my right said at intermission, "It's sort of theatre as theme park." And she's got it, I think. Though I am not a theme park habituè, I like to believe that I can appreciate the value of the experience and, as a parent of young kids, I recall the wild delight they experienced when first they beheld the glory of midways with their noises and overpowering smells. (Didn't Waters brave the innovation of Smell-O-Rama, too?)
The opening number, "Good Morning Baltimore" and "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" are the highlights of a score where most songs blur into the same song again and again. And that's not so bad, but it does tend to reinforce the feeling that the evening is padded in material almost as much as the leading "lady" appears to be. And the direction, by Jack O'Brien, as slick as a magician's sleight-of-hand, doesn't help, finally, when all the actors are shouting their dialogue and screaming their songs. The sole exceptions to this over-the-top approach are Paul McQuillan, Jay Brazeau and Tom Rooney. McQuillan plays Corny Collins with grace and relaxed charm and he can also sing his way through any style without having to sweat or rant or flail as a way of letting us know how hard he is trying to please. Brazeau, playing the role that Divine created, bears an alarming resemblance to Harvey Fierstein, the actor who first played the bedraggled Edna Turnblad on Broadway. But perhaps anyone wearing those dresses and those wigs would look the same as Mr. Fierstein. Brazeau is another respite in an otherwise loud and stormy night of enforced hilarity. He sashays across the stage with modesty and he bellows lyrics without losing a syllable. Not having seen anyone else play this role, but knowing Fierstein's persona and having seen him on a couple of occasions, it strikes me that Brazeau is saddled with replicating what the New York template demands. Done up in drag for the evening, he has far too many bass interjections to remind us that the gal is really a guyand for all this, that's a Fierstein shtick. Rooney, playing the hapless dad, does more with less and brings a welcome what-the-hell casualness to a stage already overloaded with hard edges.
As far as the writing altogether, it's pretty much a series of uninteresting scenes that allow for predictable songs and dances to pump up the volume and the audience's enthusiasm. And there's no doubt that the audience is plenty enthusiastic by the time they exit the theatre and fight their way to the street, passing one merchandise opportunity after another as they file out.
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