The touring Broadway hit Hairspray — which got its start right here in 2002, at The 5th Avenue Theatre — opened its Seattle run Tuesday at the Paramount Theatre. It performs through this weekend.
Do I think it’s the most astute observation on race relations? No.
But did I cry at the end? Almost.
— Abbott Elementary‘s Jacob Hill, on the film Green Book
If you’re at all familiar with how desegregation played out in this country, you probably already know that the plot of Hairspray didn’t actually happen. Oh, there was a story much like it, of course; segregation and protests both happened in pretty much every cranny of American life and culture, and they were still going strong when the 1960s rolled around. (Those “it’s ancient history” folks should note that the century was fully two-thirds over when the Supreme Court told states they weren’t allowed to lock people up for entering interracial marriages anymore.) A few teenagers wanting to dance together was not about to change the look of television for the masses.
What actually happened — on Corny Collins-style afternoon viewing called The Buddy Deane Show — was that the show, facing pressures to integrate, got canned instead. (Read more about the real saga here.) But that doesn’t make for a very happy musical.
And as a musical, Hairspray is a nostalgic wonder. The big hair, bright colors, playful dances, addictive music (particularly the big show-closer, “You Can’t Stop the Beat”), pervasive comedy, and feel-good message all add up to a big-time crowd-pleaser. It’s hard not to love this show.
The show hasn’t changed much, and that familiarity can feel good like a warm blanket. But the world has. And that makes for some uneasy tensions.
Hairspray has some cringey moments, as commodification of Black culture and Black bodies is accepted as a given; that’s more or less a central feature of the show. And that’s without even bringing in the cringey show-inspired audience commentary, like when a White woman detailed her favorite line, the one about once you try chocolate, you never go back. (Did she like the part where a full-grown White woman wanted to hump a Black high school boy like a dog on a leg, too? It’s hard to say.)
Where the lines can be updated with a crowd-pleasing shout-out to the 12th Man for its stop here, and the program book can have lots of words on nice glossy pages, the show could really use a nod to history, truth, and substance in both places. Alas, it remains just entertainment, syrupy and sweet.
But we all know pure entertainment is valuable, and Hairspray is great entertainment. This long-touring show is plenty polished by now — in some places it feels a little too polished — and it’s a high-energy easy crowd favorite.
This version really plays up the comedic bits (of which there are many), and the physical comedy from Traci Turnblad (Niki Metcalf) and Penny Pingleton (Emery Henderson) is spot-on. Lauren Johnson has a tremendous voice, although I’m not sure its lightness is right for the world-weary Motormouth Maybelle. The Dynamites (Sydney Archibald, Melanie Puente Ervin, and Jade Turner) are dyn-o-mite.
Fan favorite Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West, of Drag Race fame) makes a formidable Edna Turnblad. She and husband Wilbur (Ralph Prentice Daniel) are so well paired, and their grand duet in “Timeless to Me” — tender, vulnerable, and sweet without turning saccharine — is a highlight of the show.
Need an enjoyable, uplifting musical in your life? By all means, go; Hairspray is a great show. Just don’t be surprised if you need to do some reckoning after.
Hairspray the musical was written by Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics), and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the 1988 John Waters film. Original direction by Jack O’Brien and choreography by Jerry Mitchell. Direction here by Matt Lenz, and choreography by Robbie Roby.
Hairspray runs through 4/9 at the Paramount Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets ($57-$180) here. Accessibility notes: main restrooms downstairs and upstairs are gendered and multi-stall, with gender-neutral, single-stall restrooms on the main floor. Theatre and some common areas are wheelchair accessible. ASL-interpreted and audio-described performance on 4/9 (matinee), and open-captioned performance on 4/9 (evening); see notes on ticketing page for best accessible seating options.
Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with intermission.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.