Dates and Venue 18 - 23 November 2008, 8pm (Sun 7:30pm with matinees Sat & Sun 2pm) | Centre in Vancouver For Performing Arts

Director Matt Lenz Choreogapher Jerry Mitchell Sets David Rockwell Costume Design Willian Ivey Long Lighting Design Paul Miller Orchestrations Harold Wheeler

Reviewer John Jane

With her heavily lacquered bouffant perfectly intact, Tracy Turnblad, that rotund teenager with a huge heart and talent to match blew into Vancouver this week with a talented cast and crew all the way from 1962, Baltimore.

Like other high school musical comedies, it is at times, absurdly sentimental and its brazen comedy may be regarded as unsophisticated for adult Vancouver audiences. Nonetheless, Hairspray is funnier than Grease, less pretentious than High School Musical and even attempts to be politically perspicacious.

The early sixties were when post-war baby boomers became teenagers. Already there was a desire to turn away from the conservative fifties resulting in radical ways of changing the very fabric of American life. These changes affected individual values, laws, and especially music.

Hairspray is caught in that period when white male vocalists still dominated the top of the charts, just before Motown came on the scene, specializing in a new brand of rhythm and blues, and the emergence of black female groups.

Back to Tracey Turnblad who has a yearning ambition to put it down on the dance floor for an afternoon local television programme, ‘The Corny Collins Show’ whose corporate sponsor happens to be ‘Ultra Clutch’ hairspray. But Tracy is more an idealist, than a pragmatist. No sooner does she make it on the show and become an instant hit with Baltimore’s young viewers, she puts her new found fame on the line to racially integrate Corny Collins’s show and “make every day negro day.”

But alas, this is 1962 and Barack Obama is only one-year-old. Tracy immediately draws the ire of the show’s racially bigoted producer, Velma Von Tussle (played way over the top by Ariel Tyler Page) and her self-indulgent daughter Amber (Erin Sullivan). After a protest march that goes comically awry resulting in a spell in the local slammer, our heroine makes everything right in the end without getting a hair of place.

As the central character and the show’s most visible sight gag, Brooklyn Pulver is on stage for almost the entire show and turns in a tour de force performance. Jerry O’Boyle, with the help of body padding in all the wrong places keeps with the tradition of having a man play Tracy’s mother Edna. He and Drew Davidson (as Tracy’s Dad, Wilbur) win over the audience ‘big-time’ with their hilarious rendition of “You’re Timeless with me.”

I really liked Christian White as Seaweed for his charm and self-effacing humour, not to mention his great dance moves. Kate Feerick in the largely caricature roles of Prudy Pingleton, the gym teacher and prison matron might go unnoticed with many audiences, but the opening night crowd at ‘The Centre’ obviously appreciated her comedic insight.

With the aid of simultaneous scenes, Matt Lenz moves the show along at a fervid pace; perhaps even a little too frantic. I’m sure that some parts of the original production were left out – presumably to fit into a two-hour envelope.

David Rockwell’s colourful sets with their exaggerated perspective have a cartoonish look, but do the job of symbolising time and place without irksome scene shifting. William Ivey Long’s costumes, as we might expect are intentionally loud. The argyle sweaters and plaid polyester pants make the guys look like fashion challenged golfers.

Marc Shaiman's songs with their irresistible hooks and pleasing melody lines dovetail well with the storyline and make Hairspray a lively and entertaining show. Most were catchy pop songs, but the gospel styled “I Know Where I’ve Been” and the jazz-tinged “The Big Dollhouse” are agreeable exceptions.

Despite its lightweight plot, Hairspray certainly entertains - and who knows? Maybe the world does need more Tracy Turnblads.

© 2008 John Jane