Review: ‘Hairspray’ Glows with a Spunky Exuberance at the Dolby Theatre

(Center Foreground, L-R) Andrew Levitt (a.k.a. Nina West) and Niki Metcalf with the company of the national tour of "Hairspray." Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

The latest national tour of Hairspray, now playing at the Dolby Theatre through May 21st, is everything one can expect and more from a musical based on the 1960s, right down to its infectious style and civil rights-related substance. It’s visually beautiful, bold, and makes a significant social statement that gleefully co-exists with all the bright-colored costumes and big hair. Most musicals tout either a meaningful message or a lavish presentation, but this Hairspray, like many of its previous stage iterations and the 1988 and 2007 films, has both.

Any production starts with the story, which in this case is cogently written by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. It is simultaneously surreal yet steadied by its commentary on racial integration, surrounded by strong motivations, appropriate levity, and larger-than-life characters that leave a forceful impression.

(Center) Niki Metcalf with the company of the national tour of Hairspray. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

The protagonist is the cheery Tracy Turnblad, a plump girl with tall hair, towering dreams, and a progressive mindset. She and her bestie Penny Pingleton want to audition and join The Corny Collins Show, a hip TV program with primarily Caucasian teenage dancers and contemporary music, led by the eponymous host. However, Penny’s intolerant mom Prudy is simply opposed to this idea while Tracy’s full-bodied mom Edna — unlike her zany and more hopeful dad Wilbur — fears that Tracy might be unfairly bullied if she tries. When Tracy takes her once-in-a-lifetime chance, and grows her status, she meets one of the cast members, Link Larkin, and comes head-to-head with some of the show’s outright racism and opposition to diversity, spearheaded by bigoted producer Velma Von Tussle and her self-centered daughter Amber. More importantly, Tracy attempts to use her newfound station as a voice for change as she befriends several Black characters, including the audacious Motormouth Maybelle (owner of a local record shop and host of her own monthly segment, “Negro Day,” on Collins’ show) and her spirited son Seaweed and daughter Little Inez, among others.

(Center) Addison Garner with two male ensemble members in the national tour of Hairspray. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

Marc Shaiman’s music (with lyrical help by Scott Wittman) has never sounded so energizing, each drum beat and hook more galvanizing than the next — a credit to Music Supervisor Keith Thompson, Musical Coordinator John Mezzio, Sound Designer Shannon Slaton, Conductor Julius LaFlamme, and Orchestrator Harold Wheeler. Director Matt Lenz has done Jack O’Brien’s original direction justice just as Robbie Roby has captured Jerry Mitchell’s effervescent original choreography, which, in tandem with Paul Miller’s lighting, allows for the gorgeous spotlighting of brief standstill tableaus. Mitchell, incidentally, expressed his satisfaction with the manifestation of his vision at the conclusion of opening night when he took the stage after the final bows.

Hairspray, rife with not just musical theatre’s best pop music, but pastels and a preponderance of pretty colors, is a visual feast. In this production, David Rockwell’s scenic design, replete with a digital screen (the tremendously groovy video design is by Patrick W. Lord) that appropriately only supplements well-crafted moveable prop pieces, including the city of Baltimore and the jail bars during “The Big Dollhouse,” echoes the psychedelic bubbliness and the fashion-fueled confidence of the 1960s. This is further solidified by William Ivey Long’s stunning costumes and Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia’s wigs and hair, which are undoubtedly deserving of an Ultra Clutch Hairspray sponsorship.

(Aloft, L-R) Sage, Kyle Kavully, and Charlie Bryant III with the company of the national tour of Hairspray. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

The abundant cast is led by Niki Metcalf who makes for a quintessential Tracy, derided by the musical’s antagonists as a “chubby communist,” whose sunny timbre propels the narrative forward. Metcalf passionately gets across Tracy’s motivation to end segregation on The Corny Collins Show and additionally demonstrates a terrific comic timing as she gawks over Nick Cortazzo’s Link during “I Can Hear the Bells.” Cortazzo, too, has a certain panache as the budding and Elvis-like TV star who indicates promise as a redeemable character despite a reticence to rock the boat and potentially undermine his career.

Tracy’s mom Edna, who suffers from bouts of low self-esteem before her veritable breakout party, is portrayed by Andrew Levitt (renowned as drag queen Nina West) who receives an immediate ovation in his very first scene. Levitt is excellent at not only using a palette of pitches and inflections for comedic effect, but deserves plaudits for patiently steering Edna’s transformation, which blossoms during “Welcome to the ‘60s” — a number that is also notable for the electrifying vocal stylings of Sydney Archibald, Melanie Puente Ervin, and Jade Turner who dazzle in red dresses as The Dynamites.

(L-R) Andrew Levitt (a.k.a. Nina West) and Ralph Prentice Daniel in the national tour of Hairspray. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

Levitt’s onstage husband, Wilbur, is played by Ralph Prentice Daniel who emotes a terrific joviality and optimism as the jokester/inventor. The comparatively diminutive Wilbur loves his wife no matter what, a sentiment which is adorably conveyed in Act II’s feel-good and physical humor-filled “(You’re) Timeless to Me.” At one point, as they’re harmonizing, Daniel’s Wilbur goes high and Levitt’s Edna goes low — an unexpected and funny contrast.

The opposition whom the featured characters bravely rail against can be summed up by one Velma, inhabited superbly with sinewy nefariousness by Addison Garner. Velma is bereft of morals and sneers at those who look differently than her; what’s worse is that she’s a showy diva to boot which is perfectly realized in “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs,” taken to an entirely new level with impressive baton twirling. In comparison, while Ryahn Evers’ Amber isn’t as evil, she is contently ignorant, oblivious to any problems, and demands Link for herself along with any attention she could seize. Evers cranks up her persona’s annoying factor to eleven so we can’t help but root for her downfall.

(Center Foreground, L-R) Sandie Lee and Niki Metcalf with the company of the national tour of Hairspray. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

Imbuing Hairspray with the most soul is Sandie Lee’s Motormouth Maybelle who has the audience affirming memorable lines like “the bigger the girth, the more you’re worth.” To say that Lee is simply confident in the role would be an understatement; she absolutely commands with her platinum hair as a lightning rod that ignites the fuse of the events that overcome the central conflict. Lee, moreover, earns the heartiest applause when she wins over the crowd with her superbly attuned vocal dynamics in the poignantly hair-raising “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Similarly, Maybelle’s children, Little Inez and Seaweed, are depicted with flair by Joi D. McCoy and Charlie Bryant III, the latter of whom makes his mark with tireless dancing and splits — in mid-air and on the floor — which scintillate the stage in “Run and Tell That.”

As the plaid-clad Penny, Emery Henderson shares a vibrant chemistry with Bryant and is the lovably awkward girl that fans of Hairspray will readily recognize. The same can be said for Emmanuelle Zeesman’s Prudy who is familiarly domineering and a little more than old-fashioned about “race music.” Zeesman, who loses herself in two other characters — the loopy Gym Teacher who can’t stand up straight and the sensual Prison Matron with tap-dancing prowess — is as versatile as any actor there is. Proving his own aptitude for adaptability is Greg Kalafatas whose politically expedient Harriman F. Spritzer, flamboyant Mr. Pinky, drawling Guard, and authoritative high school Principal are all discrete from one another.

(Center) Andrew Levitt (a.k.a. Nina West) and company in the national tour of Hairspray. Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel

The smooth-voiced Billy Dawson convinces as TV-pro Corny Collins, a suave emcee with a conscience and whose animated Council Members charm the stage with their choreographic finesse. Craig First (Brad), Kelly Barberito (Tammy), Tommy Betz (Fender), Carly Haig (Brenda), Mickey White (Sketch), Clint Maddox Thompson (I.Q.), Annie Gagen (Lou Ann) and Helene Britany (Shelley) are underrated for being the “nicest” ensemble one could ask for as they continuously pivot from complex dance routines to even more involved harmonies.

Overall, audience members who experience Hairspray will note an excitement in the air that crescendos at just the right moments as they find themselves living vicariously through a steadfast resistance helmed by its puckish and courageous characters. Not to mention, given how likeable these characters are — in part because they inspire and make us laugh in equal amounts — it feels as if a gravitational force pulls our bodies forward as our hands naturally rise and clap along; this is none more pertinent than during the climactic and catchy “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Some things, be it an appeal to racial equality, or the acknowledgement that this show is sensational, just can’t be denied.

For more information on Hairspray at the Dolby Theatre, and to purchase tickets, please visit:


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