‘Hairspray’ drops messages in the fun

COSTA MESA, Calif. (News4usonline) – The hit Broadway musical “Hairspray” is about acceptance. That theme carries throughout several storylines of the show. Being accepted for being different can be difficult to try to navigate through.

It doesn’t matter if it was in the1960s or today, getting societal buy-in to who you are and what you’re about, can be a challenge for some people. Let’s start with a plus-size teenage girl who just wants to fit in and be liked by her peers.

Actress Joi D. McCoy as “Little Inez” and Charlie Bryant III as “Seaweed J. Stubbs” and the Company of Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Let’s tackle the plight of the Black community. Trying to fit into the country’s fabric-woven America’s “One Nation Under God” anthem, when the year 1962 rolled out, integration was something that Black people believed would bring about the equality they had sought.

Then there’s the middle-aged mom and wife trying to find her lot in life as she battles insecurities, self-worth, and purpose. With these heavy topics, a person might think that “Hairspray” is heavily burdened with meaningful messages.

No so. Even though the subjects are deep, “Hairspray” hit these societal buttons with a joyous romp. The hit musical, which has won eight Tony Awards, is fast-paced and does not feel weighed down by all the issues it addresses.        

Yes, that includes the matter of having a male (played spectacularly by Andrew Levitt) playing the role of the mother and wife (Edna Turnblad) during the performance. The idea of a man in drag, executing the role of a mom and wife is interesting.

Addison Garner (center) plays Velma Von Tussle in the hit Broadway musical “Hairspray.” In this scene, Garner (center) as Von Tussle, performs “Baltimore Crabs.” Photo by Jeremy Daniel

You don’t really see a male figure trying to play the duality of that character. All you see is a mom and a wife. Levitt holds a master class in pulling this off with his amazing acting chops.  

For the other main issue the show touches on, things have changed from the decade of the 1960s, but many things remain the same.

Whether through voter suppression and racial and social justice, the Black community continues to be treated as a bunch of outsiders to the rest of society as they were in 1962, a premise where the show sets up shop. “Hairspray” is a whole lot of fun, but it has a lot of symbolism in it as well.

From the opening number when the musical’s main character Tracy Turnblad (played by Niki Metcalf), belted out “Good morning, Baltimore,” to the show’s finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” “Hairspray” moves with high energy and serves as an excursion from everything else.     

It is a beautiful getaway. The pacing of the show is fast and furious with one brief intermission. Before you know it, the production is done. A good two and a half hours of fun entertainment goes by. And you don’t even know it. Sometimes attending a live performance you’re somewhat counting down the minutes to the final curtain.

Not with “Hairspray.” You don’t want the show to end.

A quick look into “Hairspray” and the gist of what the musical is about is that it gives an understanding of not fitting into a societal box as you try to find your lot in life. Tracy Turnblad fits the narrative perfectly.

She doesn’t have the cute Barbie doll figure as everyone else has. Her hairstyle is something of a throwback mess. And she doesn’t appear to be the one to nab the guy with all of her quirkiness. In essence, when it comes to Tracy Turnblad, many of the boxes are left unchecked.

Metcalf looks like she’s having so much fun playing this character you kind of want to join her on stage and help her out. Getting back to the boxes, to my surprise, the musical has a lot of racial overtones to it. Just like Tracy Turnblad or her family doesn’t fit in with the norm, nor does the Black community.

Playing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through April 30 before the show moves to the Dolby Theatre, beginning May 2, “Hairspray” adds a more complex storyline as it delves into the whole race thing without being too over the top about it. Then again, the writers didn’t really have a choice.

“Welcome to the 60s” – (from L) Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West) as “Edna Turnblad,” Niki Metcalf as “Tracy Turnblad” and Company in Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

The musical is set in 1962, so that should give you a clue about what the writers were thinking. The United States was still in the throes of Jim Crow and separatism between its Black and white citizens was a real thing.

Remember, civil rights legislation was not a reality at that time. The Civil Rights Movement was just gaining steam in its quest to fight for voting equality and the integration of Black people and people of color into society.

“Hairspray” grips your attention almost immediately on the colorism topic as Negro Day takes center stage. “Hairspray” doesn’t hit you over the head with its racial drumbeat, but it certainly pushes the boundaries on the matter.

When Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee) belts out “I Know Where I’ve Been,” it shakes you. You can feel the angst in Lee’s thundering voice. The pain is searing. The weariness of a people resonates. To say that Lee crushes this number would be an understatement. She flat-out knocks this song out of the ballpark.

Pushing boundaries seems to be the overriding theme throughout the performance. “Hairspray” is at times crass, but incredibly funny at the same time. More importantly, “Hairspray” does a wonderful job of getting its messages read by the audience.      

The lead photo for this article was taken by Jeremy Daniel. From left to right: Jade Turner, Melanie Puente ErvinandSydney Archibaldas“The Dynamites” in Hairspray.

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