Hairspray shows its age but still has catchy tunes and big production value.

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If you think of musicals as feel-good, people bursting into song at random moments, then Hairspray would be a perfect production that fits within those parameters. It’s light and airy, has some very real talent, and is complete with really catchy tunes. But it isn’t without its drawbacks. The Broadway Across Canada production runs on the long side at 2 hours and 30 minutes with intermission, and the lightness of the production has some parts of the dated storyline come off as glib. The production breezes over white saviour complex and white privilege and doesn’t really delve into the depth of systemic oppression, which makes sense at the time, but in 2024 seems outdated. It isn’t meant to, but maybe Hairspray could use a bit more serious connection to the issues it explores and the characters who act on those values.

Hairspray, the Broadway musical, is based on the 1988 film written and directed by John Waters. The film was remade in 2007, and it was based on the Broadway musical. This is the rendition that I’m most familiar with, starring John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken, to name a few stars. The production is based in Baltimore in 1962. Tracy Turnblad (Caroline Eiseman) and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amy Rodriguez) come home to watch The Corny Collins Show, a local teen dance television show. Some of the dancers on the show attend Tracy’s high school, including Amber Von Tussle (Caroline Portner) and her boyfriend Link Larkin (Skyler Shields). Amber’s mom Velma (Emmanuelle Zeesman), is the show’s producer and is against integrating black people with white people. The show hosts Negro Day, once a month instead, led by ‘Motormouth’ Maybelle (Deidre Lang). Her son Seaweed (Josiah Rogers) teaches Tracy some new dance moves during detention that land Tracy a spot on the show. Tracy convinces everyone including her mom Edna (played by cross-dressing Greg Kalafata) and Dad (Ralph Prentice Daniel) to show up for Mother-Daughter Day on the show and protest that black people can’t be on the show every day, but Velma calls the police, and everyone is thrown behind bars. In the second act, everything is magically resolved, Tracy gets broken out of jail by Link, they fall in love, Seaweed and Penny fall in love, and they manage to break down racial barriers on the show by singing and dancing their way there.

The performance is filled with catchy tunes and the cast is have such compelling voices, but opening night drowned out those voices. There were many times when the orchestra overpowered the lyrics and was a bit overwhelming. The songs are catchy and all kinds of fun, which gives Hairspray its staying power. Eiseman can belt out the classic including Good Morning Baltimore! and dance with a lively energy that makes her the star of the show. Deidre Lang is a powerhouse and keeps your attention throughout. Kalafata uses his vocal range to bring out the comedy of his role while still revealing her insecurities and anxieties around her size and being on camera. Daniel is a great foil to Kalafata, and it’s nice to see their relationship be rock solid in this version of Hairspray. Rogers is a standout dancer, and you can watch him all evening, while David Rockwell’s scenic design is innovative and inventive, and William Ivey Long’s costume design is flashy and fun. Wigs and hair design by Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia are critical to this performance, and they nailed it.

Hairspray loves flashy and fun as much as it loves alliteration. Nothing is too serious in this production, which is what makes it give you a toothache. You don’t have to get too invested in the characters, relationships, or issues. It’ll work out in the end and the production will take a long time to say very little about the real issues it presents. It’s shiny and glitzy and fun, with compelling choreography and songs and immense talent. It runs a little too long for such a light narrative.

There is still time to catch Broadway Across Canada’s Hairspray. More information is available online.

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