Niki Metcalf (center) as “Tracy Turnblad” and the Company of Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Broadway’s Tony Award-winning musical, Hairspray, onstage now at the Durham Performing Arts Center, opens on young Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf) dreaming away in her 1960s Baltimore bedroom. Her head is filled with visions of dancing on The Corny Collins Show, and as the hopeful plot progresses, those dreams will become reality. This story, beautifully brought to life under the direction of Matt Lenz and based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, is a familiar one to many. But, to watch it play out in today’s world brings even more meaning and depth and shows just how far ahead of its time it always was.
Sweet Tracy is plus-sized, powerful, and determined not to let her weight, or other people’s perceptions of it, stand in her way. And, as she brazenly goes after her dreams, she’s got the support of her best friend, Penny, hilariously portrayed by Emery Henderson, as well as her doting parents. Speaking of those parents, Andrew Levitt of RuPaul’s Drag Race stars in the role of Edna Turnblad, originated by none other than the legendary Divine. Levitt does the role justice with a comical, sweet, and surprisingly vulnerable version of the character.
As Tracy takes one step and then another toward her dream, she and her mother are both confronted with the prejudices facing people who don’t “fit the mold” size-wise. Similarly, Tracy forms a friendship with a few POC in her town, including Seaweed (Charlie Bryant III), who encourages her to go after her dreams; his little sister Inez, adorably acted by Joi. D. McCoy; and their wonderfully fabulous mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee). As Tracy’s star rises, she comes to realize the parallels between the discrimination she’s faced and the even harsher treatment of her newfound friends. Chagrined, she makes a bold move and decides to integrate and infiltrate The Corny Collins Show so that everyone can dance together as they should.
Of course, progress is never achieved without a few bumps in the road, and Tracy has quite a few to contend with. Aside from society itself, there’s the awful Amber Von Tussle, played to perfection by a pouting and punctilious Ryahn Evers, and her not-so-nice mother, Velma (Addison Garner). However as the story moves swiftly along and tackles everything from mother-daughter relationships to racial injustice, it proves that we all have more in common than we think. Somehow, though, the sweet message about going after what you want and believing in yourself never feels preachy or pedantic. Instead, with this story and this vibrant cast, it does the unthinkable: it feels possible.
From the still-believable teenage dialogue to Robbie Roby’s eye-catching choreography and William Ivey Long's incredible costumes, this musical never, not even for a second, doubts itself. Thus, viewers believe wholeheartedly in its powerful, progressive message. This show is uplifting, energetic and all-around wonderful. After all, how could there be anything more empowering than “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful?” It doesn’t hurt, of course, that these actors, Lee in particular, deliver it to absolute perfection.
Also nice here is the realistic camaraderie between Metcalf’s Tracy and Levitt’s Edna. Their chemistry is palpable. Plus, there are just so many endearing characters to root for. You’ll cheer for Henderson’s Penny as she fights for a little independence and for McCoy's Inez, just because she’s oh-so-sweet and deserving. Everyone here, villains aside, is lovable and will make you wish for a world in which they really existed
Fortunately, the nice thing about Hairspray is that its message sticks. It posits that people like Tracy and her progressive crew do exist, can exist, and should exist. It’s all about opening your heart and your mind to change your world. It’s a message worth embracing and one that rings even more true and necessary in today’s times.
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