The year is 1962. The hair is big, the dancing on TV is bigger, and segregation is still legal — and coming to shake it all up is Hairspray at the NAC, presented by Broadway Across Canada.
This musical was my first introduction to theatre (ironically, through the star-studded 2007 film adaptation), and it’s always held a special place in my heart; I watched the film so many times as a child that I could probably perform a song from memory. So being whisked away to Baltimore at the National Arts Centre was extremely exciting, and very indulgent.
Hairspray is something of a modern classic. Based on the 1988 film by John Waters, the story follows Tracy Turnblad as she dances her way to TV stardom while advocating for integration in early 60s Baltimore. It’s a heartwarming and motivating story of teenagers coming together that wins you over with an incredible soundtrack and ridiculous amounts of charm. But much to my surprise, it’s gotten significantly better with age.
Broadway Across Canada’s production, directed by Matt Lenz, is just as bright and bold as its protagonist, played by Caroline Eiseman. She quickly wins you over with an endless load of charm while gliding across the stage. Watching Eiseman perform “I Can Hear the Bells” is like following a lovestruck angel, further uplifted by the dynamic ensemble. In fact, the energy and wit of the ensemble truly fill the production with life; there’s literally never a dull moment when they are onstage. It’s as if they’re drawing you in to get out of your seat and dance with them.
The chemistry amongst the wider cast is widely infectious, and one of the production’s strengths. Fan-favourite drag role Edna Turnblad is brought to life wonderfully by Greg Kalafatas, with a performance that grows in volume with the character’s evolving confidence. Edna’s engagements with Tracy and Wilbur Turnblad (Ralph Prentice Daniel) are truly heartfelt, the latter of which is exemplified in an over-the-top romantic performance of “You’re Timeless to Me.”
The comedy is as big as the hair and I laughed much more than I anticipated, especially regarding how relevant several of the jokes have remained. Lenz’s direction clearly prioritizes comedic timing, which makes Penny Pingleton’s (Scarlett Jacques) confidently awkward performance all the more enjoyable.
The crew work is one of the subtler stars of the production, and it shows. There are minimal props, yet they’re colourful and impactful — yes, the life-sized can of hairspray towards the end of the performance counts! The style of the costumes (as designed by William Ivey Long) is bright and innovative, and has become the object of my personal envy. Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia’s makeup and hair design is so fun, you’re almost blown away by the curls and updos particularly towards the end of the production — seriously, how did they get the wigs like that?
Robbie Roby’s choreography is one of the most important parts of the production and is wonderfully executed. There is a subtle distinction between who is dancing and when, such as the Corny Collins cast at the beginning compared to the Dynamites during “Welcome to the 60s.” Josiah Rogers, who plays Seaweed J. Stubbs, nails the choreography as one of the best in the cast; his physical grace meshed with charisma is a noteworthy performance. The musical arrangement pairs excellently with the dancing, giving this production its own distinction. “Welcome to the 60s,” “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” and “It Takes Two” are all performances that benefit from Keith Thompson’s musical supervision and Lizzie Webb’s musical direction.
But at the thematic centre of Hairspray, behind the big hair and bigger heart, is an unwavering drive for change. Even in the odd moment where Tracy’s will falters, the people she’s inspired don’t; there’s an eloquent monologue by Motormouth Maybelle (Deidre Lang) about waiting for someone to bring racial justice since before her children were born. Lang plays the disc jockey with subdued vigour and class, allowing her voice to travel straight into the hearts (and maybe potential tears) of the audience in “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
While the show is a comedy, the story never shies away from the real harm perpetuated by some characters, including the dramatic and discriminatory Velma von Tussle (Sarah Hayes) and her daughter Amber (Caroline Portner). Their bigotry is much more blunt than I recalled from the film; although Tracy and Amber can swap insults and dodgeballs, any action the von Tussles take (no matter how large or small) can quickly ruin the lives of the Black teenage characters, like laughing Little Inez (Kaila Synome Crowder) out of the room during her audition for the Corny Collins Show. Although their cruelty leans into cartoon villain tendencies rather than the real-life sinister women who might have ruled over Baltimore, there’s a painful underlying reminder that despite social heralding of “progress,” history is never as far off as we might want to believe it is.
As I’ve said, Hairspray is truly timeless, complete with laughter, lessons about segregation, and a loveable soundtrack. Broadway Across Canada’s production is very precise yet with moments of poignancy from its stellar cast. You will never regret seeing Hairspray. The show is much more than simply enjoyable — it’s hair-monious.
Hairspray runs at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until November 19. Tickets are available here.
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