By Lori Bosworth
Segregation, civil unrest and appropriation of black music are some of the themes in Hairspray, being performed by the Lower Ossington Theatre at Toronto’s Randolph Theatre. The eight-time-Tony-Award-winning musical is based on the John Waters film with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.
The story takes place in Baltimore in 1962 when Chubby Checker was number one on the charts and black music was played in back alleys and basements. Overweight teen Tracy Turnblatt has a penchant for dancing and wants to appear on a local talent show. The Corny Collins dance show, produced by the bigoted Velma Von Tussle, showcases the popular white kids dancing the Mashed Potato and the Madison. Tussle designates a monthly “Negro Day” where black artists are allowed to perform. Tracy auditions for the show, but is turned down due to her appearance. After picking up some funky moves from her black schoolmates in detention, she returns to the show and is quickly thrust into the spotlight. Tracy then uses her celebrity to demand that the show be integrated.
While Hairspray touches on the racial unrest of the early 60s, the overall message of the musical is one of universal love and self-acceptance and this message is demonstrated in the loving relationship Tracy has with her parents, as well as the budding romance between inter-racial couple, Penny and Seaweed.
The musical clips along at a fast pace under Alan Kinsella’s crisp direction. With minimal dialogue between each song and a glorious soundtrack, there really are no lulls in this production.
Thomas James Finn is wonderfully cheesy as dance show host Corny Collins; Finn helps whisk us back to the sixties with his realistic portrayal.
Mark Willett is a joy to watch as Tracy’s dad, Wilbur Turnblad and a perfect foil for Jeffrey Bowers’s Edna Turnblad (a role that has been played by men including John Travolta in the film and Harvey Fierstein on Broadway). Willett is adept at physical comedy and has a powerful singing voice. The towering Bowers knows how to garner the laughs as the self-deprecating Edna and Willett and Bowers deliver “You’re Timeless To Me” with warmth and grace. Michelle Nash, a delight as the dippy Penny Pingleton, also demonstrates a natural sense of comedy.
Michele Shuster brings the charm and the chops to her role as Tracy Turnblad. Shuster captures Turnblad’s teenage awkwardness in the lovestruck “I Can Hear The Bells” and shows off great dance moves in “Welcome To The 60s.”
The excitement escalates when Matt McKay takes the stage as Seaweed J. Stubbs and showcases his powerful voice on the soulful “Run and Tell That”.
“Big, Blonde and Beautiful” is an infectious romp about embracing one’s flaws with Shahi Teruko as Motormouth Maybelle taking the lead vocals. Teruko displays a knockout range and great control in the lower octaves and raises the rafters with the musical’s showstopper, the gospel-based “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
Michael Galloro’s set features a backdrop of mod multi-coloured circles that provide a realistic setting for the dance show. It was clever to have the characters watching the TV set at the left of the stage while the TV performers perform at centre stage.
Choreographer Greg Carruthers must have had a blast with this musical and it shows. Carruthers’s standout numbers include the dance sequences for “The Madison,” “The Nicest Kids In Town,” and the tap dancing in “The Big Dollhouse.”
Erin Gerofsky’s well-researched costumes include swing dresses and long, sequined gowns worn by the girl group, The Dynamites.
With a glorious score directed by Mike Ross and great execution, the Lower Ossington Theatre’s Hairspray delivers messages we all need to here…and it’s fun and great value for the whole family.
Hairspray at the Randolph Theatre is being performed during April and May 2015. Tickets are $59.99, $49.99, $39.99 and $29.99 and can be purchased online.