By CB Adams
The new North American tour of “Hairspray,” which opened at the Fox Theatre on Tuesday, April 5, and runs through Saturday, April 9, is a sly bit musical entertainment.
In its 20-year history, it’s been given eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, had national tours and foreign productions and been adapted as a 2007 musical film. And let’s not forget the source material: the 1988 film written and directed by the multi-talented, agent provocateur John Waters. It’s got, as they say, legs. They may not be the shapely gams of old, but they can still move – and move an audience.
Despite some naysayers on the “interwebs” who have quibbled that this touring production of “Hairspray” is a bit tired and hasn’t aged as gracefully as it might, the packed audience at the Fox would beg to differ. They came for an energetic, entertaining pop/rock musical and this production delivered two engaging, well-intentioned hours of clapping, tapping, and laughing.
Which brings us back to why “Hairspray” is a sly bit of entertainment. Waters’ story, which drives the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, uses humor and a relatable, satisfying underdog plot with a happy ending to explore the issues of class, race, dreams deferred and body shaming. It’s got, as they say, heart, which it wears on its sequined sleeves.
As Waters has said, “I respect everything I make fun of.” That respect is still vitally apparent, even when wrapped in the delicious — in a cotton candy sort of way — 1960s-style R&B- and dance-infused music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Musicians have long used the Trojan Horse approach and wrapped a catchy tune around a serious message. Think, “…a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” from “Mary Poppins.” Or think Marvin Gaye and “What’s Going On” or Tears For Fears and “Mad World.”
So, in between the dance numbers and the sing-along songs, this show offered genuine moments for the audience to respond with consternation to the multiple ism’s and ists as well as with affirmations when the perpetrators receive their comeuppances.
In a stand-out moment, Link Larkin, played by the lanky, Elvis-y Will Savarese, refuses to follow his stuck-up girlfriend, Amber Von Tussle, played by Kaelee Albritton. The audience responded with a wave of affirmative applause that nearly stopped the show.
This level of audience engagement relies on the quality of the production’s elements. But it’s the performances by the entire cast that carry this show. A special call-out to local talent, Albritton, who hails from O’Fallon, Ill., where she was crowned Miss O’Fallon in 2014. Other props to:
• The indominable Niki Metcalf (that girl can move!) as the heroine Tracy Turnblad
• Andrew Levitt as Tracy’s plus-sized diva-in-a-housedress mother, Edna
• Brandon G. Stalling with his slinky-smooth dance moves as Seaweed J. Stubbs
• Sandie Lee for her mama-knows-best portrayal as Motormouth Maybelle
• Emmanuelle Zeesman for playing three roles with limber, Gumby-inspired physicality, and facial contortions worthy of Jim Carrey in his prime
“Hairspray” is 20 years old. Its setting is Baltimore in 1962, making it a sexagenarian! And its themes and messages still go down like that spoonful of sugar. Or maybe more appropriately, like Pop Rocks and soda pop.
Or, as Waters himself has said, “”Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humor is always the best defense and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid . . . to you.”
“Hairspray” is presented April 5 – 9 at the Fox Theatre, 527 N. Grand Blvd., in St. Louis, Showtimes are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m., with a 1 p.m. matinee on Thursday, April 7.
To purchase tickets, visit MetroTix.com or call MetroTix at 314-534-1111. Ticket prices start at $25. Learn more about the new touring production at www.hairspraytour.com or visit www.fabulousfox.com.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.