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Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Nicest Kids in Town stop by the Overture Center for the Arts

Broadway lovers and Madisonians alike had the chance to catch “Hairspray” at the Overture Center for the Arts from Feb. 22-27. 

Based in Baltimore in the 1960s, “Hairspray” follows 16-year-old Tracy Turnblad as she dances her way onto TV and into the heart of Link Larkin, a teen icon akin to the Bieber fever of the 2010s. 

“Hairspray” is notoriously a fun-filled show and gained popularity after the 2007 movie adaptation. The movie cast included a star-studded lineup with Nikki Blonsky as Tracy, Zac Efron as Link, John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, Christopher Walken as Wilbur Turnblad and Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s best friend, Penny. 

From the opening number “Good Morning Baltimore” to everyone’s long-drive, go-to broadway belter “Without Love,” “Hairspray” brought big hair to the big screen, and this past week, to Madison! 

One of the best parts of theater is the atmosphere created. Walking into the Overture and seeing “Hairspray” posters and themed cocktails available for purchase at the bar, in a way, established a vibrant sense of community. A community that includes anyone from infant age to someone well into adulthood. Unlike any other sort of live entertainment experience, theater knows no bounds. 

The touring cast of “Hairspray” quickly established themselves with a strong opening number and a set that illuminated their every move. My friend and I gushed about the set during intermission, on the walk home and later to our roommates, who so pleasantly made it clear that they understood after our tenth iteration. 

What’s fun about Broadway is that with a few, distinct staple pieces, you have created your playground. I’ve spent a few days thinking about how touring Broadway shows have to decide what stays and what goes when they’re designing a transportable set. “Hairspray” missed no beats though, and even recreated those big hairspray bottles. 

As a determined supporter of women in the arts, I’m quick to admit that the female performers carried this show. Niki Metclaff brought a loud and proud voice that paired well with Tracy’s overall determination to do anything, regardless of what’s standing in her way. Runner-up of Season 18 of NBC’s “The Voice” Toneisha Harris played Motormouth Maybelle and delivered with defining vocals and a performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been” that will bring you to tears.

In the original 1988 “Hairspray” film, the role of Edna Turnblad was played by a drag queen and has been since. In the 2007 movie, John Travolta took over the role and completely stole the show.

Edna stole the show this time around, too. Edna is played by Andrew Levitt, who more people might know as Nina West. West became famous after appearing on the eleventh season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, where they placed sixth. West was the leading force behind most of the show’s humor, with funny one-liners and a dramatic change in wardrobe. Edna gets Hairspray-ified halfway through the show, à la “Welcome to the ‘60s.” 

Of course, at its heart, the show is a great commentary on mother-daughter relationships. But, one of the show’s most redeeming characters is Wilbur, Tracy’s father and the lifelong husband of Edna. Not only is he the owner of the local tricks shop, but he’s also both Tracy and Edna’s #1 fan. We watch him encourage Tracy to cut school and audition for the Corny Collins show. During “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” Edna and Wilbur profess their unwavering love for one another while dancing across the stage and throwing around funny ad-libs that definitely landed well with the crowd. Everyone around me during this performance was dying of laughter, even the cute, old couple who sat in front of me — don’t ask me who I watched more during that performance. 

The show has faced a fair share of criticism over the years. One of the biggest plot points is Tracy’s attempt to desegregate the Corny Collins Show through a series of attempted protests and a couple of heartfelt musical numbers. Many argue that “Hairspray” whitewashes the Civil Rights Movement, and rather than elevating the few Black cast members it has, it lets Tracy pose as the leader. 

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The show confuses teenage insecurity with racial injustice a fair share throughout its entirety. It is a solid dramatic artistic attempt that might have the right intentions but misses the mark. But, the “Hairspray” cast brought their best effort and delivered a run of delightful performances that brought the audience to Baltimore and had a lot of fun while doing so. 

Grade: B+

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