Theatre review: Hairspray – big hair and big heart means big fun

The weather outside might be unseasonably cold but the heat inside the Stanley Theatre last night was undeniable as the cast of Hairspray lit the stage on fire with an energetic and deliciously fun summer treat.

Based on the 1988 John Waters’ cult classic, our heroine, the plus-sized teen Tracy Turnblad, is not only out to land a role on television with The Corny Collins Show but along the way helps bring an end to racial segregation in 1960s Baltimore.

I must admit when I first saw Hairspray a few years back, my biggest disappointment was a feeling that the edgier side of its source material was lost in this musical translation.  Going in last night I was determined to view it again with fresh eyes.  I’m glad I did.  While Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman keep things mostly light and fluffy with their songs, the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan does retain some of that Waters’ edge.

In the role of Tracy, Jennie Neumann is so full of perky energy and optimism that we can’t help but cheer her on.  At the same time Neumann injects a determined casualness to the role, which spoke volumes to one of the shows central messages of simply doing the right thing.  Somewhat of a misfit with her big frame and even bigger hair, Neumann was ultimately successful in making Tracy a 60s precursor to all those modern-day Gleeks out there.

Andy Toth steps into some mighty big heels as he continues as Tracy’s mom Edna while originally cast Jay Brazeau continues to recover.  Traditionally played by a man, beginning with drag superstar Divine in the original movie and the likes of Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, Toth brings a real tenderness to the role.  Toth’s duet of “(You’re) Timeless to Me” with Laurie Murdoch, as husband Wilbur, was a delight.

Andy Toth, Jennie Neumann and the cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Hairspray. Photo by David Cooper.
Andy Toth, Jennie Neumann and the cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Hairspray. Photo by David Cooper.

Beyond Neumann and Toth, the rest of the cast are equally talented.  Robyn Wallis’ Penny was so much fun to watch that I anticipated each of her scenes and she is matched perfectly with her up-tight mother played by Lelani Marrell.  J Cameron Barnett’s Seaweed goes beyond mere stereotype and Adam Charles’ Link is so full of boyish charm that you just wanted to box him up and take him home at the end of the night.  The mother-daughter duo of Anna Kuman and Cailin Stadnyk as the Von Tussell’s are another perfect match with Matt Palmer’s unstoppable Corny Collins.

The biggest standout of the show though, with the one number that nearly had us on our feet, was powerhouse Alana Hibbert as Motormouth Maybelle.  Hibbert’s rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” sent chills and even put me on the verge of a couple tears.  For a show that is mostly frivolous fun, this number from Shaiman and Wittman really packs an emotional punch and highlights the real heart of the show.

Ted Roberts set design was disappointingly inconsistent.  While Mr Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway was a visual treat, the painted scrims were anything but.  Alison Green does a better job with the costumes though, bringing a smorgasbord of colours to the stage including a couple of plus-sized gowns for Edna that any real-life drag queen would die for.

Musical director Ken Cormier and his small orchestra ensures the beat indeed doesn’t stop and while choreographer Valerie Easton is somewhat limited by a set design that is mostly one-dimensional, she brings an energy to the dance numbers that matches that of the music and the cast.

With its big hair and big heart, this Hairspray is definitely big fun.

4 Out of 5 Stars Hairspray

Music by Marc Shaiman.  Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.  Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan.  Directed by Bill Millerd.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production.  On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through July 10, 2011.  Visit http://www.artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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