Musical set in civil rights era astounds modern theatergoers


Tracy Turnblad dazzles audiences in “Hairspray: The Musical”.

“Hairspray” has returned to the stage and it’s bigger, blonder and better than ever! “Hairspray”, originally released as a John Waters movie in 1988 and rebooted in 2007 by Adam Shankman, follows Tracy Turnblad, a teen that is obsessed with The Corny Collins Show and its star dancer and heart throb, Link Larkin. Both the movie and stage musical follow Tracy as she auditions for the show and tries to navigate the fatphobic and racist ‘60s Baltimore, that has aspects that she loves but has been told doesn’t love her back.

“Hairspray” may be a campy musical set in a bright and playful version of a problematic era, but the themes highlighted in the musical are still realistic and pressing. One of the major setbacks for Tracy is her weight, with the producer of The Corny Collins Show and antagonist Velma Von Tussle telling her that not only is she too “big” to be on the show, but that she also isn’t racist enough, since Tracy answered “yes” when asked during the audition if she would swim in an racially integrated pool. The latter topic is a significant theme in the musical with a goal of the main characters to make “Negro Day everyday” on the show instead of once a month.

Of course, to play these iconic characters, you will need a well-suited cast, and this musical had just that.

I thought the show was well-cast. As a singer, Melanie Puente Ervin as Motormouth Maybelle was incredible,” musical fan and Columbia Heights Public Schools board member Ms. Jessica Medearis said. ”As far as acting, Niki Metcalf made a great Tracy Turnblad — her Tracy was sincere without being too saccharine, and her jokes were well-timed.”

This show was filled with amazing performances that left the audience clapping, laughing and in awe the whole show. Without a doubt, the audience favorite was Andrew Levitt’s performance of Edna Turnblad. His loud and proud performance perfectly encapsulated the role as a loving mother to a woman who doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone. Another stand out was Penny Pingleton, as played by Emery Henderson. Whether it was her confusion and wandering around the stage in “I Can Hear the Bells” or her sudden lustfulness when she met Seaweed, played by Charles Bryant III, she perfectly embodied the naive and lighthearted Penny. 

Growing up with the movie, the music of this show is nothing surprising. “I can hear the bells” and “Without love” were highly anticipated and they did not let me down. The ending of “Welcome to the Sixties” was somehow made even better by the extraordinary performances of Sydney Archibald, Melanie Puente Ervin and Jade Turner, who played the trio The Dynamites. Their vocals left the audience shouting and me with a stank face of appreciation. Of course, a stand out performance was “(You’re) timeless to me”, performed by Ralph Prentice Daniel and Levitt. This has always been a favorite as it showcases the love between Edna and her husband Wilbur, despite them growing old and everything that comes with it. The show’s — some might say R-rated — rendition was hilarious with adult jokes galore.

Combined with the vocal and acting performances, the sets and staging, along with the costumes, were extravagant and brought the sixties to the stage of the Orpheum. The exaggerated up-dos and poodle skirts made it difficult to mistake the story for any other time period. The use of silhouettes in “Good Morning Baltimore” and the musical’s ability to create multiple atmospheres on the stage at the same time, like the kids dancing on The Corny Collins Show along with Tracy and Penny watching it from her living room, were amazing uses of space and props.

“I really enjoyed some of the cheeky stuff they did with the sets for the national tour — ‘living’ concert posters, Tracy’s upside down bedroom set, etc.,” Medearis said.

There were some parts of the show, however, that left a bitter aftertaste on my tongue. Charles Bryant III’s performance of “Run and Tell That” was undermined by a quiet mic, making it nearly impossible for his singing to be heard by the audience. The entire scene of Tracy in jail, though entertaining, seemed like filler and didn’t fit with the rest of the show. I will admit that my love of the 2007 movie makes me a bit biased, but some plot beats did not feel genuine or necessary to the story.

Overall, I can definitely say that I enjoyed the show. It is a story that deals with very difficult issues and topics through a comedic and wholesome story. The performers were outstanding and the production as a whole was done very well. I am so glad I got to see one of my favorite musicals live and in the company of my mom, who did not stop singing or dancing the entire show.