STAGE REVIEW: Hairspray thins out its wild rootsIn 1984, John Waters’ Hairspray unleashed a full-bodied Ricki Lake onto the world as Tracy Turnblad, a “pleasantly plump” teen who defies conventional beauty standards when she scores a spot on the local dance program and successfully leads the charge towards racial integration in early 1960s Baltimore by jiving with her “negro” friends on TV.
It was, and still is, Waters’ most mainstream film, and became a huge cult favourite thanks to its campy humour, political themes and subversive nature. Brimming with weird life and quirky joy, it was just begging to become a musical. That it went on to become an eight-time Tony Award-winning Broadway hit was unexpected by many, but Hairspray (the musical) has quite a bit in its favour: catchy songs, strong themes and Waters’ eccentric foundation. (In a lovely bit of third-generation Hollywood incest, the musical spawned its own big-budget, mainstream film adaptation in 2007.)
But the Arts Club’s Hairspray is so perfectly polished, so devoid of Waters-esque wackiness — it borders on sterile. The cast is great, the energy’s unflagging and everybody’s having fun, but, save for a few blissful moments, where’s the wild, loose whimsy? Why has Waters’ (admittedly) residual influence been scrubbed clean?
It might be partly due to the casting of its lead, Jennie Neumann. Her Tracy is delightful and sunny, and Neumann has plenty of charm, sparkle, and a great voice (as evidenced in the earworm of an opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore”) But only in the pages of Vogue could she be described as “pleasantly plump.” Every joke made or insult hurled about Tracy’s heft (and there are many), feels increasingly hollow. It flies in the face of my feminist principles to take issue with an artist’s appearance, but in a show like Hairspray — in which the lead’s stature is a key plot point — casting a relatively thin woman weakens an important element of the script’s social commentary. It effectively blanches Waters’ original intention of using size and race to upend social stigmas.
Director Bill Millerd’s other casting choices prove more inspired. Alana Hibbert packs a punch as Motormouth Maybelle, the black DJ and TV pioneer, particularly during her soaring, show-stopping number “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Robyn Wallis (Penny, Tracy’s dim-witted sidekick who ends up in a forbidden interracial romance) is a compelling actress who makes interesting and quirky choices, standing out even when she’s in the background. J. Cameron Barnett’s moves are absolutely mesmerizing as Seaweed, the loose-limbed dancer who’s only allowed to strut his stuff on Negro Day. He and Anderson have a delightful chemistry and their characters’ romance proves far more engaging than Tracy winning the hand of dance show dreamboat Link Larkin (Adam Charles).
Millerd bestowed the iconic role of Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad, to veteran funny man Jay Brazeau. Unfortunately, the Vancouver-based actor (who strapped on a girdle to play the role in Toronto six years earlier) was felled by a minor stroke prior to opening night. His replacement, Andy Toth, acquits himself well and has a wonderful stage partner in Laurie Murdoch, who, as Edna’s adoring husband Wilbur, conveys genuine love and affection for his buxom, anxiety-ridden wife.
Although a fun frolic, Hairspray seems content to entertain without engaging. Some will be satisfied by its constricted charms, but like the Turnblad women, I’m a big girl. I want to have my cake and eat it, too.
Hairspray runs to July 10 at Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville), 8pm (Wed-Sat), 7:30pm (Tues). Matinees: Wed, Sat-Sun, 2pm. $29-$69 from ArtsClub.ca and 604-687-1644.