Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review: 'Hairspray'

Sparkling singing and snappy dance numbers transcend the preachy social message in Hairspray.

Review: 'Hairspray'


By Jim Rutter


John Waters brought the bulk of his axe collection to Hairspray’s movie grindstone, and Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book of the musical makes no attempt to minimize the story’s crusades for civil rights, acceptance of differences, and the perennially controversial notion that the big girl with big hair can win the hunkiest boy in town with her big heart.

In 1962 Baltimore, proudly plump Tracy Turnblad (Victoria Mayo) wants to win a spot as a dancer on the Corny Collins TV show, achieve racial integration on television, earn her mother’s respect and fall in love with Elvis-knock off Link Larkin (Nathan Meyer, whose honeyed voice earns the comparison). Along the way, she encounters racism, sexism, and a slew of insults about her appearance from the white establishment.

Three things prevent the Media Theatre sparklingly sung, superbly danced rendition from disappearing into this aerosol-fueled haze of sixties social justice issues.

One is not to the show’s credit: in the spoken lines, the majority of the cast can’t capture the camp of the characters. Most jokes sail by unnoticed (in fairness, few will get period humor referencing Khrushchev’s shoe and Debbie Reynolds), and in acting, only Jennifer Bissell avoids this fate as Tracy’s skinny sidekick Penny. Appearing as a tiny scarecrow in a towering wig, she garners laughs by ambling through clunky gestures and tweaking the tonal shifts of her voice to match.

But what the cast misses in the text, they embody fully in song, their bright, proud voices bubbling through the poppy tunes. Dann Dunn’s direction humanizes these cartoonish characters by shifting the emotional center of the story into a touching tale of mothers and daughters, battling both across the generations and in the struggle to help the next one finds its way.

Dunn’s dazzling choreography integrates simple steps into joyous ensemble numbers bursting with an exuberance that borders on ecstasy, transforming picket lines into dance parades and infusing the entire production with a buoyant sense of life.

Sure, the 60’s era issues still drive the story, but Mayo steals the show. She radiates optimism and cheer, as if Troy Martin O’Shia’s lighting coated her in an ebullient glow, and her blue-shaded eyes, beaming smile and heart ready to burst easily outshine the axe-blades of social commentary. For two-and-a-half hours, I found it impossible not to watch her sing.

Hairspray. Through November 4 at the Media Theatre, 104 East State St. Media, PA. Tickets: $27 to $49. Information: 610-891-0100 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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