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‘Hairspray’ Review: A Triumphant Return to Boston Despite Outdated Plot

“Good Morning, Baltimore” - Niki Metcalf as Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray."
“Good Morning, Baltimore” - Niki Metcalf as Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray." By Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel
By Sofia M. Giannuzzi, Contributing Writer

The Citizen Bank Opera House was brimming with audience members eagerly awaiting the opening night performance of “Hairspray” on Wednesday, Oct. 19. The musical, a part of Lexus 22/23 Broadway in Boston Season, returns to Boston with the show’s original director and choreographer, Jack O’Brien and Jerry Mitchell, respectively. Though the cast manages to wonderfully bring the show to life, the musical comedy, based on the 1988 film “Hairspray,” shows its age as its outdated plot is performed to a modern audience.

“Hairspray” takes place in 1960s Baltimore and follows the story of a young, overweight girl Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf) whose dream is to become a dancer on the popular “Corny Collins Show.” Not only is dance Tracy’s passion, but she also is in love with the show’s heartthrob, Link Larkin (Nick Cortazzo). Initially turned away from the show because of her body type, Tracy does not give up in her attempt to get cast. Though she eventually succeeds, along the way, she learns about the racial bigotry of the segregated television show. With her mother, Edna Turnblad (Andrew Levitt), best friend Penny Pingleton (Emery Henderson), and new friends including Seaweed J. Stubbs (Charlie Bryant III) and Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee), Tracy leads a protest against the “Corny Collins Show” so that Black dancers may dance alongside white ones.

In depicting the uphill battle to change the show, “Hairspray” means to capture the fatphobia and racism that ran rampant in Baltimore in the 1960s, though ultimately concluding that anything can be solved by following one’s dreams and speaking out for what is right.

Although the cast did well, all things considered, it was obvious from the performance that it was the show’s opening night. The technical parts of the show seemed uncoordinated: Microphone feedback could be heard throughout the night and spotlights were frequently on the wrong actor. While the sets were beautiful and lively, audience members could clearly observe them rocking back and forth, their lack of sturdiness breaking the immersion somewhat.

Be that as it may, incredible actors and singers managed to pull the audience back in. Henderson as Penny is particularly remarkable: Her perfectly awkward, uncoordinated movements throughout the show allow for an impeccable portrayal of the awkward Penny. More than once throughout the show, Henderson well-deservedly leaves the entire audience laughing. Andrew Levitt (or, famed Nina West from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) was another highlight of the show, taking on the comedic, albeit meaningful, role of Edna remarkably well. The duet “You’re Timeless to Me,” performed by Levitt and Ralph Prentice Daniel, who plays Tracy’s father, Wilbur Turnblad, strikes the rare perfect balance between endearing and hilarious. Finally, Cortazzo performs beautifully as Link. The hollowness of Link’s head reverberates through the theater, though his smile is simultaneously stamped on every viewers’ heart, a clear indicator that Cortazzo manages his role well.

But no singer quite matches Sandie Lee in her portrayal of Motormouth Maybelle, a DJ, record shop owner, and mother, especially in the number “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Lee’s performance gives the audience goosebumps. Her solo almost makes the viewers turn to the person sitting next to them and agree that this is what makes coming to the theater worth it.

The impeccable performances by the actors can’t change the fact that the show was written in an era with different sensibilities. In faithfully adapting the source material, “Hairspray” can be quite offensive at times: Some of the lines feel outright racist. For example, in the musical number “Without Love,” Penny sings that after falling in love with Seaweed, a Black man, “[she’s] tasted chocolate / And [she’s] never going back.” In the same song, Seaweed references his life in the “ghetto,” pulling a switchblade out of his pocket as he does so. The main protagonist suffers from the opposite issue: While obviously well-intentioned, to a modern audience, she can come off as a white savior.

All things considered, Broadway in Boston did a phenomenal job assembling a strong cast and delivering a triumphant return of the show to Boston. But it leaves one question unanswered: At what point does a show need to be retired or re-written? The Boston community can decide after seeing the musical, which runs through Oct. 30.

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