When the original film version of Hairspray hit theaters in 1988, it was hardly a smash hit. The movie, written and directed by eccentric auteur John Waters, grossed a modest $8 million at the time. But it eventually developed something of a cult following, and in 2002 it spawned a Broadway reboot that ran for six years and 2,642 performances. In 2007, it was once again made into a movie, this time a star-studded blockbuster packed with toe-tapping song and dance numbers.
Now it’s one of the most beloved musicals in the modern theatrical canon, and when Skylight Music Theatre announced that they’d be staging the show for their 2018-19 season, audience expectations climbed as high as Tracy Turnblad’s signature hairstyle.
Fortunately, the Skylight production delivers.
At the beginning of the first scene, audiences are offered a quick glimpse into Tracy Turnblad’s bedroom. If you didn’t already know the show was set in the 1960s, the day-glo colors and vintage vinyl would clue you in. Then, suddenly, Tracy – played by the Chicago-based actress Maisie Rose – starts belting out the opening lines to “Good Morning Baltimore.” Rose hits every note, and perfectly sets up the play’s subject matter and themes in one snappy, self-contained song.
We learn that Tracy is a perennial optimist whose greatest ambition in life is to join the cast of “The Corny Collins Show,” the city’s most popular dance program. We also learn that Tracy doesn’t turn a blind eye to the grit and grime in Baltimore, where “The rats on the street all dance ’round [her] feet.” But she believes that the good people of Charm City can, and should, work together to solve the problems they face.
From that first scene to the last, Hairspray’s relatively simplistic storyline is elevated by Rose’s wide-eyed delivery and great singing voice. The rest of the cast is a delight too. Normally here I’d call out a few actors and actresses who delivered particularly notable performances. But, really, every performer shines, especially in the joyous final number – one of the best I’ve seen since moving to Milwaukee.
A few of the jokes haven’t aged well. Lines like “Who handled the Gabor sisters? Well, who didn’t?” probably induced more laughs than cringes when the play debuted in 2002. But the show’s messaging – about love trumping hate and the importance of equality – is strikingly well-suited to our current political climate.
In one of the show’s most touching numbers, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” Motormouth Maybelle leads the cast in a poignant song that brought more than a few audience members, and actors, to tears. It’s easy to imagine that, as they sang lines like “there’s a dream in the future / there’s a struggle that we have yet to win,” they weren’t just thinking about the segregationist policies that blighted Baltimore in the 1960s.
The show’s darker moments are tempered by the cast’s relentless positivity and the bouncy musical numbers. And when the curtain finally closed on the show, I don’t think I was the only one left with the impression that maybe we really could solve many societal problems if we just tried a little harder to respect each other and get along.