Hairspray takes us to the ’60s with upbeat music and a strong message

-Brenda Hillegas
photo by Jeremy Daniel

Hairspray, based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, debuted on Broadway almost 20 years ago in August 2002! Now it’s back in Philadelphia at the Kimmel Cultural Campus Miller Theater through May 22nd only! Get ready Philly- it’s time to travel to 1960s Baltimore as teenager Tracy Turnblad tries to make her way, front and center, onto the The Corny Collins Show!

You might know the story. Tracy Turnblad is a teenager who wants to be a part of a local teen aimed dance show, but she’s laughed at during the auditions. Through friends she met at detention, Tracy learns some dance moves that get her on the show, but her new friends can’t join her because they are Black. Hairspray follows a group of teens as they try to make the show inclusive all while sticking it to authority figures, falling in love, and learning to love themselves.

Niki Metcalf had a big character to fill, following Ricki Lake in the original movie version and Marissa Jaret Winokur who won a Tony for the role on Broadway. But Metcalf easily transforms into Tracy and it’s hard to tell if the smile on her face throughout the show is simply a beautiful characteristic of Tracy herself or just Metcalf being so happy in her shoes. It seems to be a high honor to play Tracy Turnblad.

Another stand out role is Edna Turnblad, played by Andrew Levitt aka Nina West (RuPaul’s Drag Race). This was a perfect performance. Don’t take your eyes off of Levitt during “(You’re) Timeless to Me” and “Welcome to the ’60s” (another personal favorite showtune)- he’s wonderful.

“Run and Tell That”- a song featuring Seaweed (played last night by Michael Corey Hassel) takes us to another side of Baltimore where the characters plot a protest to get everyone- Black and white together- on the Corny Collins Show. All while Tracy and Link (Will Savarese) discuss what’s more important – doing something for yourself or something for the greater good. Use that voice!

“You Can’t Stop the Beat” has been on my Broadway playlists since the original cast recording was released. It’s a big fun number with flashy ’60s dancing and costumes. It will hype you up for the ride home and be stuck in your head forever. In a good way. You can see the love on stage and it radiates to the audience. So many of the songs in this show are perfect Broadway numbers and you’ll be tapping your feet the whole time.

Though, if you take away the catchy songs that make you want to dance in your seat, you’ll see that Hairspray highlights some of the social issues that still, unfortunately, are grappled with today. We see racial inequality and segregation of the Black dancers. We see Tracy being turned away from the audition because of her size. People are treated poorly simply based on what they look like. These issues are resolved at the end of the musical- at least on The Corny Collins Show– but the story on stage remind us that we still have a lot of work to do in real life. Be loud and take up space. Tracy and her friends have a message for all of us, so let’s listen.

Hairspray tickets are available here.

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