Updated: Jun 1
This Hairspray has Staying Power!
APRIL 20TH, 2023 — COSTA MESA
It takes a big man to play a tender woman. This theatrical truth is made joyously plain from the moment the formidable frame of Andrew Levitt (AKA Nina West), wearing a housedress and blonde locks, is revealed to the audience of "Hairspray," the buoyantly entertaining mock-'60s musical that opened Tuesday night at Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Mr. Levitt, who competed on the 11th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race (for which he was named Miss Congeniality), and was featured as the drag goddess Divine, alongside Daniel Radcliffe, in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” once again seems destined to cause a sensation in beehive and pumps.
His Edna Turnblad, a plus-size housewife with a ferocious sense of justice, is not merely a walking fat joke. In Mr. Levitt’s touching portrayal, Edna occupies the emotional core of this appealing show, a production that boasts a tolerant heart as large as, well, Edna herself.
Consider the motherly effect that has on one Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf) of Baltimore, as she walks to school through a landscape that includes a frolicsome gutter rat, the flasher who lives next door and that familiar old derelict with his portable bar stool. Those happy backup voices in her head, engraved by copious spinnings of vinyl in her bedroom, guarantee that her view of the streets is more than rosy: it's hot pink and filled with promises of romance, stardom and the righting of social inequalities.
As the plus-size teenage Tracy, who becomes a television dancing queen and super-integrationist in one soulful leap, Ms. Metcalf is visibly assured and wistful with a firm grasp of empathy. She is large and small at the same time, compact and round and physically agile. Her shudders in the presence of her love, Link Larkin, played with a sexy sweetness by Nick Cortazzo, are performances unto themselves. And although she sounds more like Brenda Lee and nothing like the occasionally frog-voiced Mr. Levitt, Tracy is unmistakably her mother's daughter. And that's quite a compliment.
And, oh, by the way, when Tracy needs to help her agoraphobic mom cut loose and live a little, for example, a Supremes-like trio in dazzling red accoutrement impulsively emerges onto the sidewalks to deliver the message personally. Among the advice offered: ''The future's got a million roads for you to choose/ But you'll walk a little taller in some high-heel shoes.''
Corny Collins (Billy Dawson), the Dick Clark-like host of the “Corny Collins Show,” a local sock hop TV show loosely based on the real Baltimore teen dance program called the "Buddy Deane Show" where, similarly, one Baltimore woman fought to get black teens back on the popular show in 1958, calls his young dancers ''the sugar and spice-est, nicest kids in town'' who gather to dance the Watusi and the Mashed Potato.
Corny is in favor of Tracy and racial integration of his show but meets resistance with Velma (“The Madison”). Tracy’s dream is to become famous, and she seizes the opportunity to rise from a big-haired punch-line to stardom when auditions are held for a female dancer on Corny’s show. But Tracy is also looking to rectify some wrongs on the show’s racial policies.
The musical, winner of eight Tony Awards, is inspired by a film by John Waters (“Pink Flamingos;” “Cry-Baby”), a director whose name became a byword for midnight movie iconoclasm; its broad but witty book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and its eye-tickling look (delightful, pop-up cartoon sets by David Rockwell that make allusion to “Bye Bye Birdie”), along with colorful, neon costumes by William Ivey Long, are chock full of knowing references to other musicals and pop artifacts. And Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia’s ingenious wigs could have been designed with an architect's T-square.
The cast inhabits their popsicle-colored world without a whit of self-consciousness, which means that even when they're being subversive, they glow like a Tom Hanks or a Sutton Foster. When a young man named Seaweed, played by Charlie Bryant III, flicks open a switchblade, for instance, it's with a Boy Scout spirit of resourcefulness instead of street menace. Hip and happening, with their high-volume hair and light-reflecting clothes, these kids know the meaning of being cool.
The same convivial tone is carried through every scene, but its backbone really comes from its music. Shaiman, the show's composer and its co-lyricist, Wittman, isn't sending up the music of the age of ''American Bandstand.'' Nor are they simply replicating it. What they’re doing instead is taking the infectious hooks and rhythms from period pop and R & B and translating them into the big, bouncy sound that audiences demand.
In fact, Shaiman uses the same wide-eyed, mood-lifting infatuation with musical comedy that Mel Brooks revealed in his score for ''The Producers.'' And while his savvy arrangements, together with orchestrations by Harold Wheeler, give a happy nod to Motown, Elvis, Lesley Gore ballads and standards like ''Higher and Higher,'' the score's appeal isn't so much nostalgic. Instead, it's the sort of music that builds its own self-contained, improbably symmetrical world. ''You Can't Stop the Beat,'' its roof-raising finale number, might also be Mr. Shaiman's mantra.
The human bulwark of that beat is Andrew Levitt’s Edna Turnblad, wonder mom to the peppy all-American firebrand Tracy and wife of gag shop owner, Wilbur (Ralph Prentice Daniel). There's something touchingly humble about Mr. Levitt’s performance, just as there was about Divine's in the movie.
Big, burly and tart-tongued as she sweats over the laundry she takes in, Edna is every forgotten housewife, recreated in monumental proportions and waiting for something to tap her hidden magnificence. Which is, of course, just what an old-fashioned musical is designed to do. And her jaunty husband, the engagingly modest Mr. Daniel, is terrific in coaxing the romantic diva out of Mr. Levitt’s Edna, especially in a music-hall-style love duet that, for all its gentleness, brings down the house.
It's strange how a hefty man with a voice like a dump truck in fourth gear can make you forget he's a man. But Mr. Levitt’s Edna is positively dainty: This is a guy who knows his way around a pair of heels.
The villainous role of Velma Von Tussle (played Tuesday evening by understudy Emanuelle Zeesman), the somewhat racist producer of the dance show, is raucously delicious in the role, with an over-the-top “Revenge” number that conjures up Ursula’s bit in “Mermaid.” In the upside-down world of "Hairspray," it is the pretty blonde who is evil.
On the flip side of that, there's Sandie Lee’s Motormouth Maybelle, a strong and deeply “with-it” black record-shop owner, offering plenty of stoical virtue and inspirational advice, and then, without warning, mesmerizes the entire audience with the heavenly soul anthem, “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
But the show's ensemble — both the represented adults and teenage population — unfailingly strikes the right balance between giddiness and earnestness. Noteworthy performances included Nick Cortazzo as Link Larkin, Tracy's dream boy who made hearts throb; Ryahn Evers as a whiny Shakira look-alike and Tracy's archrival, Amber Von Tussle, the bratty, selfish resident princess of The Corny Collins Show. The talented Ms. Evers was rib-tickling in her main number, “Cooties.”
Charlie Bryant III as Motormouth's enterprising son, Seaweed J. Stubbs danced and charmed his way through the show with little effort (“Run and Tell That”); Emmanuelle Zeesman as authoritarian mom, Prudy, was sublime; Joi D. McCoy’s Little Inez, Seaweed's little sister, was definitely a triple-threat. Emery Henderson unleashed Penny Pingleton’s wild side, Tracy's dithery, slightly dorky best friend who is always by her side (when not grounded for life by her mother, Prudy). Ms. Henderson was sensational.
And special kudos to Greg Kalafatas, who does triple duty as Harriman F. Spritzer, the President of Ultra Clutch, the high school Principal and the owner of Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway (who gives Tracy and Edna a makeover). They're all winners. And they bring just the precise, focused energy to Robbie Roby’s choreography, which, like the score, turns period vocabulary into its own zingy language.
Hairspray is thoroughly deserving of its cult status. It is a Fun Fun Fun show — one of the greatest pop/rock musicals of all time! Stocked with canny, deliriously tuneful songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and directed by Matt Lenz with a common touch that stops short of anything crass, ''Hairspray'' is as sweet as a show can be without promoting tooth decay.
CAST: Tracy Turnblad: NIKI METCALF; Corny Collins: BILLY DAWSON; Amber Von Tussle: RYAHN EVERS; Brad: CRAIG FIRST; Tammy: KELLY BARBERITO; Fender: TOMMY BETZ; Brenda: CARLY HAIG; Sketch: MICKEY WHITE; Shelley: HELENE BRITANY; I.Q.: CLINT MADDOX THOMPSON; Lou Ann: ANNIE GAGEN; Link Larkin: NICK CORTAZZO; Prudy Pingleton: EMMANUELLE ZEESMAN; Penny Pingleton: EMERY HENDERSON; Velma Von Tussle: EMMANUELLE ZEESMAN; Harriman F. Spritzer: GREG KALAFATAS; Wilbur Turnblad: RALPH PRENTICE DANIEL; Principal: GREG KALAFATAS; Seaweed J. Stubbs: CHARLIE BRYANT III; Duane: NICHOLAS DION REESE; Gilbert: SAGE; Lorraine: LAUREN JOHNSON; Thad: KYLE KAVULLY; The Dynamites: SYDNEY ARCHIBALD, MELANIE PUENTE ERVIN, JADE TURNER; Mr. Pinky: GREG KALAFATAS; Gym Teacher: EMMANUELLE ZEESMAN; Little Inez: JOI D. McCOY; Motormouth Maybelle: SANDIE LEE; Matron: EMMANUELLE ZEESMAN; Guard: GREG KALAFATAS; Pearl: MELANIE PUENTE ERVIN; Peaches: SYDNEY ARCHIBALD; Cindy Watkins: JADE TURNER
And featuring ANDREW LEVITT (AKA NINA WEST) as Edna Turnblad
SWINGS: CAROLINE EISEMAN, ALEX FULLERTON, SABRINA JOSEPH, MATTHEW J. KELLY, McLAINE MEACHEM, FAITH NORTHCUTT, NAKIYA PETERKIN, MICAH SAUVAGEAU
UNDERSTUDIES: For Tracy Turnblad—CAROLINE EISEMAN, FAITH NORTHCUTT; for Edna Turnblad—GREG KALAFATAS, MICAH SAUVAGEAU; for Wilbur Turnblad—GREG KALAFATAS, MICAH SAUVAGEAU; for Penny Pingleton—HELENE BRITANY, CARLY HAIG; for Amber Von Tussle—KELLY BARBERITO, CARLY HAIG; for Link Larkin—TOMMY BETZ, MICKEY WHITE; for Corny Collins—TOMMY BETZ, CRAIG FIRST, MICKEY WHITE; for Velma Von Tussle—ANNIE GAGEN, EMMANUELLE ZEESMAN; for Motormouth Maybelle—MELANIE PUENTE ERVIN, LAUREN JOHNSON; for Seaweed J. Stubbs—NICHOLAS DION REESE, SAGE; for Little Inez—SYDNEY ARCHIBALD, McLAINE MEACHEM; for Female Authority Figure—KELLY BARBERITO, CAROLINE EISEMAN; for Male Authority Figure—ALEX FULLERTON, MICAH SAUVAGEAU.
SEGERSTROM CENTER FOR THE ARTS PRESENTS, “HAIRSPRAY, THE BROADWAY MUSICAL” A NETWORKS PRESENTATIONS EVENT; Based on the NewLine Cinema film Written & Directed by JOHN WATERS; Book by MARK O’DONNELL & THOMAS MEEHAN; Music and Arrangements by MARC SHAIMAN; Lyrics by SCOTT WITTMAN & MARC SHAIMAN; Original Choreography by JERRY MITCHELL; Original Direction by JACK O’BRIEN; Direction by MATT LENZ; Choreography by ROBBIE ROBY; Scenic Design by DAVID ROCKWELL; Costume Design by WILLIAM IVEY LONG; Tour Lighting Design by PAUL MILLER (Based on the Broadway Design by KENNETH POSNER); Sound Design by SHANNON SLATON; Video Design by PATRICK W. LORD; Wigs & Hair by PAUL HUNTLEY & BERNIE ARDIA; Orchestrations by HAROLD WHEELER; Music Supervisor KEITH THOMPSON; Musical Coordinator JOHN MEZZIO.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts will present “Hairspray” April 18th-30th, 2023, Tuesdays – Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 2PM & 7:30PM, and Sundays at 1PM & 6:30PM. For Tickets and further information, please inquire at: www.scfta.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jeremy Daniel (Instagram @JeremyDanielPhoto)