A stage musical based on a 1988 film that takes us back to working-class Baltimore in the early 1960s sounds dated even before the curtain rises. But “Hairspray” nonetheless had a respectable run and garnered a number of awards when it opened on Broadway in 2002.
“Hairspray” is one of those shows about show-biz, about overcoming adversity and discouragement to attain celebrity and recognition, focusing on an innocent, star-struck, wannabe dancer, teenager Tracy Turnblad, played engagingly by Jamie Pitt. Predictably, we encounter more than a modicum of teenage falling-in-love and teenage rivalry, principally in the form of pretty but petty Amber (Mallory Johnson), spurred on by her vindictive and bigoted mother, Velma Von Tussle (Jacinta Mackey Graham), who is intent on thwarting Tracy’s dream, as well as on excluding blacks from the Miss Teenage Hairspray dance competition on The Corny Collins Show.
Velma Von Tussle? Corny Collins? The names say it all. Welcome to the comic-book world of “Hairspray.”
Act 1 presents teenage culture, and singing and dancing, culminating in Tracy leading a public demonstration against racial segregation. Act 2 opens with Tracy and company behind bars. Will Tracy get out in time to compete in the final of the Miss Teenage Hairspray extravaganza?
Take a guess. And guess who wins.
Script, lyrics and score are largely unremarkable. The story-line unfolds slowly, dialogue is often stilted, cliches abound, music and lyrics are functional, but scarcely memorable. “Hairspray” is no “West Side Story.” You won’t come out of this show humming catchy tunes, although you might harbour a warm memory of the rousing and moving rendition of a black gospel-style song, “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
Undoubtedly, the show’s heart is in the right place on issues like racism and size-ism, and it harbours no discomfiting skeletons in the cupboard or monsters under the bed, although it must be acknowledged that under the hair there isn’t a great wattage of brain-power.
The best characteristic of “Hairspray” is the opportunity it provides to put a large number of performers in their teens and 20s on stage singing and dancing and acting. These young troupers, principals and choruses alike, throw themselves gleefully and wholeheartedly into the enterprise — not to mention somewhat older Peter MacDonald in drag, outrageously gagging and camping up, to the evident delight of the audience, in the part of Tracy’s mum.
But the crescent skills and talents of these young performers really deserve to be showcased in a classier vehicle than “Hairspray.”
Having said this, I must also report that Tuesday’s substantial, opening-night audience rose quickly to their feet to applaud the curtain call. An accolade to the zeal of cast and crew and pit musicians, certainly — and also an appreciation of script and score into the bargain?
Directed by the producer, with musical direction by Ronalda Hutton and choreography by Mara Noftall, the Peter MacDonald production of “Hairspray” continues its run at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre until Saturday. Curtain time is 7:30 p.m.