Last weekend, a production at The Fabulous Fox Theatre welcomed local audiences back the ’60s and did it in style.
“Hairspray,” the Tony Award- winning Broadway musical, came to St. Louis as a part of touring production, bringing with it all the catchy songs, deliciously overblown set design and towering hair that the show-originally adapted from director John Water’s decidedly more nihilistic film of the same name from 1988-has come to be known for since opening in 2002.
The musical, set in 1960s Baltimore on the dawn of the civil rights movement, is the sometimes light-hearted and sometimes bitingly funny story of Tracy Turnblad-a chubby teenager whose only dream is to be a featured dancer on the popular local variety show “The Corny Collins Show” and be noticed by the show’s resident heartthrob, Link Larkin. Though she eventually gets herself onto the show through pluck and sheer determination, she’s forced to choose between what she wants and what is right when the show refuses to integrate.
The story can sound overly dramatic for a musical comedy in a basic plot description. But “Hairspray” is first and foremost a grand entertainment, filled to the brim with inventive sets, quirky costume design and production numbers that would be show stopping if they didn’t make up 90 percent of the show’s running time.
Indeed, a lot of credit has to be given to the entire cast-from bit players to leads-as “Hairspray” seems like a fairly exhausting show to produce well. Each musical number is, for the most part, more elaborate and choreographed than the next and to keep pace with such a fast-paced musical experience that must require a lot of stamina and vocal control. As light and bubbly as the show might be, it’s obvious that “Hairspray” requires a lot of commitment, and one could never accuse the show’s current touring cast of doing anything less, fully buying into every sometimes purposefully cheesy, always twisted moment.
After all, if you want to sell an audience on three foot-high wigs and a bottle of hairspray doubling as a blowtorch, you have to buy into it first.
The cast is more than up to the task.
Brooklynn Pulver, who plays Tracy, manages to take a character that so many have made a name for themselves playing in the past and make it her own.
Erin Sullivan and Ariel Tyler Page, as the scheming mother-daughter duo of Amber and Velma Von Tussle, are appropriately manipulative and entitled in their roles as main antagonists to Tracy.
In their roles as an all-girl singing group, The Dynamites, actresses Shelese Franklin, Talitha Farrow and Kimberly Marable bring the house down with their powerful vocals during the musical number, “Welcome to the ’60s.” Similarly, Lisa Linette wowed the crowd with her vocal strength as Motormouth Maybelle, matriarch of the group of black performers hoping to make it onto “The Corny Collins Show.”
And in a completely and refreshingly unrestrained performance, Amber Rees plays Tracy’s best friend, Penny, completely committing herself to the character’s inherent weirdness and twitchy awkwardness.
Perhaps the most memorable moment from the night, however, was completely unintentional. If it’s the mark of a good actor to stay in character and sell all parts of a story, however ridiculous, then it’s the mark of a great one to save even the most over-the-top slip up. Jerry O’Boyle, performing in drag (as is the custom in “Hairspray”) as the Edna, the mother of Tracy, was seized with a bout of uncontrollable laughter during a slower production number with Drew Davidson, playing Edna’s husband. O’Boyle brought the show to a full stop for a moment, but the audience was eating it up.
The Fox Theatre’s stage is, of course, an enviable performance space, but the ways in which this touring production manages to take the stage requirements of a Broadway show and adapt to it any stage size is pretty impressive. In the opening number, for example, the musical number “Good Morning Baltimore” follows Tracy as she wakes up and walks the street of the title city. To approximate the change from her bedroom to the street setting, actors incorporated into the scene spin and move scenery pieces on stage as the performance goes on.
In all, this touring production of “Hairspray” is an infectiously fun musical extravaganza featuring songs most of the audience came out singing after the lights came up and they spilled into the street. Though a few technical problems plagued the show at times, the undeniable charm of it was able to shine through.
For more information about the Fox Theatre, including upcoming shows and ticket prices, visit www.fabulousfox.com.