Review: ‘Hairspray’

Any lingering memories of last summer's SARS fiasco vanished in a whoosh of aerosol giddiness as "Hairspray" exploded onto the Toronto scene. Anchored by a largely Canuck cast and remounted with care by helmer Jack O'Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, this is one of the slickest local versions of a Main Stem show in recent memory.

Any lingering memories of last summer’s SARS fiasco vanished in a whoosh of aerosol giddiness as “Hairspray” exploded onto the Toronto scene. The Tony-winning musical seems more than likely to repeat its Gotham and U.S. touring success in the Canadian market, with the strongest box office response since “Mamma Mia!” opened here four years ago. Anchored by a largely Canuck cast and remounted with care by helmer Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, this is one of the slickest local versions of a Main Stem show in recent memory.

Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s adaptation of the 1988 John Waters film continues to please, especially for the way it economically tells the story of chubette Tracy Turnblad and her desire to integrate Baltimore’s teen dance TV show back in 1962.

Repeated viewings of the show also increase the initial admiration generated by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s clever score. What could have degenerated into mere pastiche hits a whole new level of delight thanks to inspired arrangements and witty lyrics.

Given thesps with almost universal strong comic skills, many of the show’s jokes — in both book and musical numbers — score as resoundingly as ever. The O’Brien/Mitchell tag-team keep things moving at an appropriately zippy pace, and the high-energy cast give their all to the dance numbers, selling each one as though their lives depended on it.

Design elements remain one of the show’s strengths, with David Rockwell’s sets that change from Necco Wafer pastels to Day-Glo primary colors as action moves from the white-bread neighborhood into the ghetto. William Ivey Long’s costumes continue to secure his title as the king of excess, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting is a hit show all on its own.

Vancouver stage, TV and film (“Air Bud”) actor Jay Brazeau makes an irresistible Edna Turnblad. Although physically reminiscent of the role’s creator, Harvey Fierstein, his voice doesn’t sound like he’s been gargling with rocks. Whereas Fierstein never missed a chance to camp broadly, Brazeau has a subtler hand, without sacrificing any of the laughs. The retro duet he shares with husband Wilbur, “Timeless to Me,” is one of the show’s highlights. (Wilbur, by the way, gets an excellent outing from Tom Rooney, normally a legit actor whose last appearance was as Hamlet at Ottawa’s National Arts Center.)

The show’s baddies are in good hands, with Susan Henley embracing the diabolic streak in Velma Von Tussle and making one of the show’s few limp numbers, “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” come to life. Tara Macri, normally a sweet ingenue, finds a new niche here as nasty daughter Amber Von Tussle, witching it up with the best of them.

One of the highlights is Jennifer Stewart as Penny Pingleton, the squeaky-clean girl who’s a few stripes short of a tartan. Stewart brings a delicious intensity to the role that magnifies her comic effect, rather than diminishing it. Michael Torontow gets lots of mileage out of hunky hero Link; Paul McQuillan mines all the comedy in Dick Clark wannabe Corny Collins without slipping into overdrive; and Charlotte Moore and Kevin Meaney play an assortment of cartoon cameos with flair.

The soulful side of the enterprise is also in good hands, with Matthew S. Morgan sliding slickly through Seaweed J. Stubbs and Fran Jaye stopping the show cold as Motormouth Maybelle with her take-no-prisoners rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

There’s one weak spot in the show, and although it’s central, it manages not to damage it significantly. Vanessa Olivarez, a finalist from “American Idol,” doesn’t make much of an impression as Tracy Turnblad. Her pop singing is fine, and her scenes obviously have been carefully drilled, but she lacks the outsize personality that made the role’s creator, Marissa Jaret Winokur, so adorable. Olivarez has no major acting experience. and it shows in the way she fails to grab the role and make it her own.

Despite that, “Hairspray” still has all of its hold intact. Here’s hoping it has a frizz-free (and long-running) future in Toronto.

Hairspray

Princess of Wales Theater, Toronto; 1,981 Seats; C$94 ($68) Top

Production

A David and Ed Mirvish presentation of the Margo Lion, Adam Epstein, Baruch-Viertel-Routh-Frankel Group, James D. Stern/Douglas L. Meyer, Rick Steiner/Frederic H. Mayerson, SEL & GFO, New Line Cinema production, in association with Clear Channel Entertainment, A. Gordon/E. McAllister, D.Harris/M. Swinsky, JGB Osher, of a musical in two acts with book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman. Directed by Jack O'Brien.

Creative

Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Musical direction, Bob Foster. Based on the New Line Cinema movie written and directed by John Waters. Sets, David Rockwell; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Steve C. Kennedy; wigs & hair, Paul Huntley. Opened, reviewed May 5, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Tracy Turnblad - Vanessa Olivarez Corny Collins - Paul McQuillan Amber Von Tussle - Tara Macri Brad - Clyde Alves Tammy - Caissie Levy Fender - Darren Voros Brenda - Christine Rossi Sketch - Nicolas Dromard Shelley - Alison Smith IQ - Jesse Weafer Lou Ann - Breanne Arrigo Link Larkin - Michael Torontow Prudy Pingleton, Gym Teacher, Matron - Charlotte Moore Edna Turnblad - Jay Brazeau Penny Pingleton - Jennifer Stewart Velma Von Tussle - Susan Henley Harriman F. Spritzer, Principal, Mr. Pinky, Guard - Kevin Meaney Wilbur Turnblad - Tom Rooney Seaweed J. Stubbs - Matthew Morgan Duane - Derek Wiens Gilbert - Steven Cutts Lorraine - Felicia Dinwiddie Thad - Desmond Osborne The Dynamites - Lisa Bell, Karen Burthwright, Starr Domingue Little Inez - Shennel Campbell Motormouth Maybelle - Fran Jaye
Denizens of Baltimore: Clyde Alves, Breanne Arrigo, Lisa Bell, Karen Burthwright, Shennell Campbell, Steven Cutts, Felicia Dinwiddie, Starr Domingue, Nicolas Dromard, Caissie Levy, Kevin Meaney, Charlotte Moore, Desmond Osborne, Christine Rossi, Alison Smyth, Darren Voros, Jesse Weafer, Derek Wiens.
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