‘Hairspray’ cast deserves better script

Gordon Jones
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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?

Your call.

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.

Geographic location: Baltimore, Broadway

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Recent comments

  • Judy Huxter
    October 02, 2010 - 18:35

    I live in England & the total attendance for the west end theatre version is a record 13 million, you can't break records in London with a bad script... so there Mr Jones

  • Confused
    October 02, 2010 - 14:33

    I really don't understand Mr. Jones' idea of what constitutes a review. His 'reviews' read more like diaries and generally offer nothing of value to readers in St. John's. Hairspray was written for a generation that grew up in North America, and this reviewer obviously doesn't fall within its intended audience. Judging by the reaction of the crowd, the script worked just fine. Mr. Jones vaguely alludes to the positive reaction of the audience between insults. Hairspray isn't West Side Story. Birds also go "tweet." What is the purpose of this asinine comparison? I was present at both shows, and they were both executed well. They were simply intended to serve different purposes. Also, I don't know if I would classify West Side Story as a catchy musical over Hairspray. To my understanding, the general public isn't all that proficient at tackling compound metres with duples and asymmetrical time signatures. Hairspray was written specifically to be infectious. And you know what...it is. These last few subjective points aside, I still really don't see the point of this review.

  • Natasha Smith
    October 01, 2010 - 22:04

    I agree completely with the other comments on this article. This should be a review about the talent of the performers on stage and not a critique of the written word. After seeing the show tonight I can say without a doubt that many left the theatre with a smile on their face and a tune in their hearts... It was a job well done and it showcased many very talented people from this province and beyond, including an actor who appeared in the film version of this musical. The only downside to this show was the dismal performance of the sound system in the Arts And Culture Centre. When a group of people put time and energy into a performance such as this, it must be such a disappointment to them to know that their big solo only sounded mediocre because of outdated equipment. Perhaps the musical reviews should be left to someone more qualified.

  • Liz Duff
    October 01, 2010 - 15:19

    I enjoyed the show last night (Thursday) tremendously. I did not get hung up on script or dialogue. I was totally entertained which is why I went to see it in the first place. I'll leave the decontruction to the "experts". Oh by the way I left wanting to sign up for singing and dancing lessons.

  • Caitlin Piercey
    October 01, 2010 - 14:22

    Declaring 'Hairspray' to be unremarkable, lacking in brain power, dated, etc., etc., etc. is both beside the point and a hard claim to support. Unremarkable? I think the success of the show speaks against that. A handful of Tony Awards, Laurence Olivier Awards, a recent movie version, and a very successful broadway run (in 2007, it averaged an 86% capacity) certainly all point to a show that is considered remarkable by many people. "Lacking in brain power"? It's cute. It's fun. It tackles the idea of social injustice in good spirit. It's accessible, it's entertaining, and creating a show that can be so loved by so many suggests brainpower. As for the show as "dated", well, yes, it's not the '60s anymore. But some of the issues presented are hardly dated and besides, it's simply fun. But all of this is beside the point. Peter Macdonald Productions chose to put off 'Hairspray' but they did not write it, and they chose a great time for it as well, following the success of the movie. But this review almost entirely ignores the actual performance in question. The cast was brilliant, hilarious, moving; it was incredibly entertaining to watch; the set design was lovely; and as for a lack of catchy tunes, I still can't get "Welcome to the 60s" out of my head. The performance should be judged for itself, not swept aside and ignored in favour of a critique of the musical itself.

  • WL Bates
    October 01, 2010 - 12:49

    Hmmm, I guess when I go and see something called Hairspray, I am really not expecting a script of Shakespearean porportions. The cast were amazing. The sets were fabulous. The music divine. And the singing voice on the actor from Mount Pearl who played Motormouth Maybelle, WOWEE! My only complaint was the sound system. At times you could not hear what the actors were saying or singing. And the distortion, oh my! I thought Hairspray rocked and at the end of Thursday nights performance there was another standing ovation. I left the theatre wanting to see it all again and singing "You Can't Stop the Beat!"

  • Suzanne Steele
    October 01, 2010 - 11:47

    I totally disagree with Gordon Jones's review of Hairspray. As a critic, why do we need to hear his subjective opinion on what constitutes a good or acceptable musical, which by the way, seems to have mass appeal. After a seven year run on Broadway and numerous awards, it seems ridiculous to suggest that the script, lyrics and score are "unremarkable" and lacking in "brain-power," to quote the esteemed academic and expert. On the contrary, I would suggest that the simplicity of the script and lyrics are very effective in relaying social messages to the audience. As for the performances of the actors/dancers, it could be argued that despite the glitches in the sound system, the talent of the cast is obvious. In fact, it would be an understatement to say that they were exceptional. Which brings me to the next point...why did Dr. Jones neglect to raise issue of technical problems that were experienced and very evident throughout the show? This aspect of the production is crucial and the quality of sound ultimately determines the production's success. Perhaps Dr. Jones should be a little less critical in terms of the choice of musical, and contribute a more productive viewpoint by putting pressure on the Arts And Culture Centre to update or improve its sound system.