The Austin Chronicle

Review: Broadway in Austin’s Hairspray

By Bob Abelman, June 14, 2023, 2:00pm, All Over Creation

The huffing of fluorocarbons – breathing deep into a brown paper bag filled with Freon or leaning into the aerosol stream from a can of Aqua Net hairspray – was actually a thing those crazy kids in the 1960s did to get high. The result: An adrenaline rush, short-term euphoria, and then an onset of drowsiness.

These days, a ticket to the non-equity touring production of Hairspray will likely have the same effect.

Based on the high-camp, low-budget 1988 nonmusical film by transgressive cult filmmaker John Waters, the musical version premiered on Broadway in 2002 and first went on national tour in 2003, before getting its own big screen version in 2007. All versions share the light-weight storyline of a big girl with big dreams against a backdrop of the civil rights movement in 1962 Baltimore. Sixteen-year-old Tracy Turnblad lives to dance and despite her unfashionable girth, unpopular parents, and liberal views, she lands a spot on a local TV teen dance program, The Corny Collins Show, which she helps integrate with her high school detention buddies and best friend Penny Pingleton.

The film’s subversive satire addressing racism, body-conformism, big hair, and bullying is dipped in a candy coating for the musical, courtesy of a funny, uplifting script by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and catchy, upbeat Tony Award-winning songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. All this is wrapped in wildly colorful and kitschy scenic (David Rockwell), costume (William Ivey Long), and lighting (Paul Miller) design and period-specific choreography (Robbie Roby).

The final product is a refreshing spritz of aerosol, and the talented ensemble of dancers/singers traveling with this show, led by Niki Metcalf as a thoroughly lovable Tracy, work hard to make it so.

But too many of the actors – particularly Andrew Levitt as Tracy’s mom Edna (a guy in the role has always been a nod to drag queen Divine, who played the part in the film), Ryahn Evers as teen dance show goddess Amber Von Tussle, Addison Garner as her mom and snobbish show producer Velma Von Tussle, and Emmanuelle Zeesman as Penny’s mom/the gym teacher/the prison matron – perform as if someone swapped the often-used prop hairspray cans filled with vapor smoke for the real thing. Their portrayals are way over-the-top, desperate for a laugh, and out of sync with the others. Because these characters are made larger-than-life from the get-go, the actors have nowhere to go, emotionally, for the remainder of the production. Any adrenaline rush or euphoria experienced by audience members during the show’s dynamic, Metcalf-forward opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore” quickly lapses into shell shock and, then, tedium once these other characters are introduced.

On opening night, the tedium was exacerbated by a few technical problems, as if some of the crew were addled by second-hand spritz. The two spotlight operators missed their on-stage marks more often than not, leaving random actors in the dark and trailed by a persistent beam of light trying to track them down. Sound mixing was also problematic, with singing often difficult to hear or in a state of imbalance with the nine-piece orchestra.

Despite these mishaps and the misguided creative choices of some, Hairspray is still easy to love for those who desire something lightweight, colorful, and candy coated.

Broadway in Austin’s Hairspray

Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman, 512-471-2787
Through June 18

Running time: 2 hrs., 30 mins.

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