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The Body-Positive ‘Hairspray’ Is a Riot and a Wild Ride

San Diego Musical Theatre stages the high-camp classic about breaking down barriers to representation
The cast of Hairspray by San Diego Musical Theatre

Fans who’ve seen only the 2007 film adaptation of Hairspray may be surprised at how blue the innuendo gets in the stage musical, but then again I’m sure longtime John Waters fans were surprised when he—best known for unabashedly raunchy X-rated cult films—was able and interested in toning it down for a more mainstream audience. Camp is the word of the day here, and your enjoyment will hinge on your indulgence of mugging and scenery-chewing. Excepting a few unavoidable misfires that are baked into the script (a butch, pedophilic high school gym teacher tilts the cringe meter too far into harmful stereotype for my money) the infectiously happy exuberance behind every note will sweep you up and carry you away on a nonstop wild ride.

The lion’s share of that happy feeling comes from Bethany Slomka, who nails the role of Tracy Turnblad, a teenager in 1962 Baltimore whose biggest loves are her mother and The Corny Collins Show, a dance act starring “The Nicest Kids in Town”—aka the whitest and slimmest ones. (The black kids only get to dance once a month, on “Negro Day.”) Tracy’s determined to get a part on the show and “make every day Negro Day,” but it’s produced by a bigoted former beauty queen (Eileen Bowman, deliciously wicked) and stars her mean-girl daughter (Lauren King Thompson, exquisitely obnoxious). Though at first she’s turned away because of her weight, once Tracy learns some awesome new moves from the black kids in detention, her push to integrate the show becomes unstoppable.

It’s not just a righteous crusade, of course; she’s still a teen, and her other main reason for being there is to lust after the show’s lead heartthrob, Link (Nickolas Eiter). (Can I say how refreshing is it to see a female character be free to express this much desire and sexual agency without being shamed for it?)

The Body-Positive 'Hairspray' Is a Riot and a Wild Ride

The Body-Positive ‘Hairspray’ Is a Riot and a Wild Ride

Bethany Slomka and John Massey in Hairspray

Tracy’s rising spirit lifts all boats, but most especially her mother’s. Edna Turnblad was written to be played by a man in drag, dating back to Waters’ casting of his childhood friend Divine as the lead in nearly every film he made. Here, John Massey understands the complexity and empathy the role demands—that its joy comes not from cheap “man-in-dress” laffs, but from the boisterous spirit hiding just beneath the surface of a timid housewife, waiting only for a confidence boost from her daughter to break free and join the freewheeling ’60s. Edna’s sweet, funny duet with her husband, Wilbur (Steve Gunderson), “You’re Timeless to Me,” is a showstopper, in vaudevillian spotlight before a closed curtain, leaving no doubt that this play is here to champion the overlooked, the outcast, the not-quite-A-list-material.

Hairspray is also remarkable in that it can speak plainly about some truly painful realities without slowing the otherwise comedic momentum. When a white girl worries that her mother will metaphorically kill her for dating a black boy, his younger sister remarks—twice, to make sure we get the point—that no, she would kill him. This would be a real crickets moment in a lesser production, but here it leads straight into Motormouth Maybelle (Eboni Muse)’s rip-roaring body-positive anthem “Big, Blonde and Beautiful.” That doesn’t mean the racial issues are swept under the rug; it means these teens are vibrating with so much energy to resist that they simply can’t afford any time to get sad about it.

Of course, you need a strong supporting cast to not be outshone by the Turnblads, and this group doesn’t disappoint. Out of all of them, Emma Nossal inhabits her character perhaps most completely as the gawky, slouching beanpole Penny Pingleton; her match with the smooth-talking and smoother-dancing Seaweed (Kenneth Mosley) exhibits some sizzling chemistry; and 15-year-old Janae Parson is a firecracker as fellow “Nicest Kid” hopeful Little Inez. Director J. Scott Lapp and choreographer Jill Gorrie have done great work crafting such sharp, expansive dance numbers on the relatively small Horton Grand Theatre stage. It’s a raucous riot from start to finish, and you’ll leave with a smile on your face and more than a little bop in your step.


San Diego Musical Theatre

Through September 2

The Body-Positive ‘Hairspray’ Is a Riot and a Wild Ride

The cast of Hairspray by San Diego Musical Theatre

By Dan Letchworth

Dan Letchworth is the copy chief of San Diego Magazine. His print column Dansplaining explores San Diego trivia, and his theater review blog Everyone’s a Critic was a finalist for best online column in the 2019 National City & Regional Magazine Awards.

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