REVIEW: Hairspray

The timeless and witty musical feels right at home at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.

Like curls shellacked with Aqua Net, Hairspray proves to be as full of bounce and shine as ever at Chanhassen Dinner Theater. It’s that kind of mystical show where every song warrants a standing ovation, every character seems familiar yet unique, and every scene packs a powerful punch of entertainment, depth, and—perhaps most importantly—purpose. Of course, that’s how John Waters meant for the story to go when he wrote and directed the original movie back in 1988. But there’s something about a catchy tune that also delivers a lesson on the backwardness of segregation that reels in audiences night after night, year after year.

Set in 1962 Baltimore, Hairspray follows eternal optimist Tracy Turnblad as she breaks into the world of show biz via her favorite TV program, The Corny Collins Show. A plus-size girl who isn’t afraid to voice her opinions, Tracy immediately shakes things up at the station—and in her city—as she fights for integration and embraces the future.

The beauty of the musical is that while it could be your traditional plot—girl has dream, girl fights for dream, along the way girl falls for boy, girl gets dream and boy, a kiss, and a bow—Hairspray is no such thing. Sarcasm, sexual innuendos, dry humor, and hot-button issues (race, class, weight, religion) weave their way into the script, inciting laugh-out-loud and oh-my-gosh moments as big as Tracy’s hair. (A favorite comes from Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother: “Little girls make mistakes, Mr. Pinky. If they didn’t, where would other little girls come from?”)

Instead of toning down Waters’ undertone of challenging the norm, the Chanhassen embraces it. Continuing the tradition started in 1988 by Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead), actor David Anthony Brinkley plays Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother. Yes: Brinkley, the man who most recently condemned Jesus to death as Pontius Pilate in CDT’s Jesus Christ Superstar, plays a woman. And plays her well, too, fully embracing the voluptuous body suit and mother-hen role. His (her?) husband, Wilbur Turnblad, is played by a wonderfully dry, awkwardly mischievous Jay Albright. Together, the two make quite the pair: tall and short, full bosomed and bald headed, insecure and über nerdy—in other words, highly entertaining.

Rounding out the fairly odd family is Therese Walth, making her CDT debut as the ever energetic, big-hearted, Civil Rights activist-in-the-making Tracy Turnblad. Bringing a big smile, beautiful voice, and impressive dance skills to the stage, Walth takes the roll and truly makes it her own. In fact, everyone in the cast delivers outstanding performances, from Kaija Pellinen as hopelessly awkward Penny Pingleton (note her choice to make Penny pigeon-toed: genius!) to Aimee K. Bryant as the booming and poetic Motormouth Maybelle to Kasono Mwanza’s smooth moves and descriptive facial expressions as Seaweed.

Director Michael Brindisi and choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson also bring a bit of magic to the table with fresh ideas on how to best execute this classic musical. One of the most inventive examples came in the first act, with the song “I Can Hear the Bells.” Without giving it away, let’s just say a very literal play on words turned out a fantastically funny outcome.

It’s hard to say what shines brightest in Hairspray: the music (by Marc Shaiman), the lyrics (by Shaiman and Scott Wittman), Waters’s script, or the acting. But does it really matter? Since its inception, the show—as a movie and on Broadway—has gained attention, awards (including eight Tony’s), and fame. And, thanks to its latest reprisal at CDT, Hairspray will continue down that glowing path, finding a home in the hearts and heads of anyone lucky enough to experience it.

Tuesday-Sunday, through January 28, 2012
$59-$79 (includes dinner)
Chanhassen Dinner Theatre
591 W. 78th St., Chanhassen, 952-937-2424