Technicolor Fabulousness: HAIRSPRAY

Photo by Gary Ng.

Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre
Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan. Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman
Based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters.
Directed by Susan Kosoff
Musical Direction by Matthew Stern
Choreography by Laurel Conrad

January 24 – February 23rd, 2014
180 The Riverway
Wheelock College
Boston, MA
Wheelock Family Theatre on Facebook

Review by Craig Idlebrook

(Boston) The first act of Wheelock Theatre’s Hairspray is such a great way to dance away the winter blues that it should be prescribed like Vitamin D.  Words fail to do justice in describing this outlandish, energetic, and mirth-filled play, which unfolds like American Bandstand on just a hint of acid, so I’ll just say that I smiled straight through from the downbeat of the opening number until intermission.  Since the second act couldn’t top the first without causing people to disappear to a Nirvana of spastic theatrical comedy, it’s probably just as well that the play trailed off slightly after intermission, like a great joke that leaves you with a fit of the giggles. The plotline is like life, only awesome.  Tracy Turnblad (Jenna Lea Scott), a heavyset teen with a hairdo that can block the view of the blackboard, dreams of becoming one of the dancers on the Corny Collins Show, a 1960’s teen dance show.  Unfortunately, the show only allows “the nicest kids in town”, who all just happen to be white and skinny. People of color are relegated to a once-a-month version of the show, “Negro Day”, and people of weight aren’t generally allowed in front of the camera at all. Tracy, raised in an eccentric and loving household, seems unable to take no for an answer, even when she’s rejected at the try-outs.  How does she win the day?  I can’t tell you, not because I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but because I can’t really remember.  It all made sense at the time when I was in the theater, but it doesn’t now that I’m back in the cold, cruel world.

And that’s the beauty of this somehow simultaneously absurd and sincere play.  The music and writing team of Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan somehow reshape the world in the way we want to see it, where chubby girls advance the causes of civil rights just because they believe in themselves and can dance.  And yet for all its exuberance, this play avoids being Pollyannaish.  We all know that what’s happening on stage really doesn’t happen in the real world, but maybe it could if someone is crazy enough to try it.

In this spirit, the writing team has tapped into the beautifully crazy mind of John Waters, the original author behind the 1988 movie of which this play is based.  Waters has made a career of creating sometimes disgustingly weird movies to show the absurdity of societal mores that make so many wonderful people feel like outcasts. Hairspray, which also was recently remade into a take-it-or-leave-it film, represented that rare moment when Waters didn’t feel compelled to push so hard and could just tell a story…in his own weird way.

Watching this play unfold so crisply and energetically on stage before me, I could only envision the ill-advised versions that must be being staged by theaters with less ability than Wheelock.  Sitting through this play would have been like getting your teeth cleaned with a dull instrument if the cast weren’t willing to commit to play it to the hilt with nuclear energy.  Luckily, Scott is nearly flawless, as are her castmates.  Crisp singing, fun dancing, a hell of a groovy set and a great band all tap into Marc Shaiman’s sweet tunes and Mark O’Donnell’s fairy tale story to make a play that raises the roof.

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