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HAIRSPRAY Musical at Fox Theater Review

Photo: (from L) Niki Metcalf as “Tracy Turnblad,” Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West) as “Edna Turnblad” and company sing “Welcome to the 60s” in HAIRSPRAY. Photo: Jeremy Daniel. Courtesy of Fox Theater

– By Cate Marquis –

The Fabulous Fox is on a roll, with a fantastically fun “Hairspray,” the touring production of the award-winning Broadway hit, a colorful musical based on John Water’s campy 1988 comedy. Rarely have comedy and music combined so well, and this energetic production is just the cure for the blues over lingering cold, damp weather.

The audience had a surprising number of kids in seats on the show’s opening night, and the young people seemed to enjoy its lively, color-drenched performances as much as anyone. The story of a chubby teen with dreams to be a dancer on a TV music show speaks to current audiences more than ever, as does the musical’s message of diversity. John Water’s boundary-pushing, cross-dressing comedy was considered more grownup comedy back then, but times have changed.

The story is set in 1962, just as the Swinging ’60s with its colorful fashions and new ideas of integration are pushing out the conformist, exclusionary ’50s, a decade whose signature color was beige and when multiple rules kept things segregated. Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf) loves the Corny Collins Show, a local American Bandstand-style music and dance TV show, and longs to be a regular dancer on it. Tracy has loads of personality, wears the latest fashions, and is a really good dancer but she’s also short and on the chubby side – not the ’50s ideal’s look.

When a cast member leaves the show, it’s host Corny Collins (Billy Dawson) and the producer Velma van Tussle (Addison Garner) hold auditions, and Tracy tries out, accompanied by her shy best friend Penny Pingleton (Emery Henderson). Van Tussle doesn’t like Tracy’s looks but she also doesn’t like her ideas either. Tracy would like to see the show integrate. Right now, Black music and Black dancers are restricted to only one day a month, called “Negro Day,” with host Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee) and featuring her son, dancer Seaweed J. Stubbs (Jamonté D. Bruten). The rest of the month, the show stars Link Larkin (Will Savarese), an Elvis wanna-bee, along with his blonde girlfriend Amber (Kaelee Albritton), who also is the producer’s daughter. Change is the last thing Mrs. von Tussle, and the advertisers, want.

The tongue is fully in cheek in this show, and satire and broad comic fun come along with the tolerance message. A comedy star of this show is Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) who plays Tracy’s mom Edna Turnblad, the cross-dressing role played by Divine in John Water’s film and by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. Christopher Swan plays Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s dad, who owns a joke shop. Levitt and Swan are good throughout and especially when featured in a hilarious bit, with the song “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” a spoofing but affectionate love song.

The songs are non-stop in this show, with less dialog-only scenes than most musicals, and those songs are tuneful and energetic. Better yet, they also reflect the time period. In Act One, Tracy sings “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” in perfect early ’60s style. Other highlights are the celebratory “Welcome to the ’60s,” which Tracy and company belt out with mom Edna as her daughter draws her out of her agoraphobic shell. The show wraps up with the high-voltage finale “You Can Stop the Beat” with the whole company dancing and singing non-stop.

The colorful costumes accurately capture the look of the time, a real delight. Some real ’60s dances, like the Madison, are featured as well, another nice touch of authenticity. The sets and backdrops also reflect the time period accurately, with bright colors and lots of polka dots. The 50’s may have said “think pink” but in the ’60s, that pale color gave way to the new shade of hot pink.

This show is great fun, and with its wonderful tolerance message, it is one of the best this year at the Fox, for its too-brief run, “Hairspray” is on stage at the Fabulous Fox through Apr. 9.

© Cate Marquis