Review: ‘Hairspray’ at Broadway San Jose has big heart and bigger hair

One of the joys of the musical “Hairspray” is seeing the lot of ugliness that surrounds the world of 1962 Baltimore, and plunking Tracy Turnblad in the middle of it all. She’s cheery, ideal, finds the good in just about everything and dances her tushy off, which seems to rid the world of the hideousness that surrounds her.

In the national tour of the musical, based on the film of the same name created by John Waters, running through Sunday, Nov. 28 at Broadway San Jose, there are many strong performances that run the gamut of theatrical performance stylings. Those stylings don’t include hair stylings assisted by free hairspray in the bathrooms like there were in the Neil Simon Theatre’s bathrooms (I didn’t use any in New York but would have if it made its way here), There’s cheery cheese, physical slapstick and unvarnished truth that gets to the heart of this world where everything is quite all white.

Tracy (a thoroughly delightful Niki Metcalf) has two missions in life – dancing on the Corny Collins (Billy Dawson) show and making the dashing Link Larkin (Will Savarese) her forever love. But standing in the way of both dreams are the unapologetic racist television producer Velma Von Tussle (Addison Garner) and her cruel daughter Amber (Kaelee Britton). Tracy’s body type and massively huge hair are not the right look for the perfectly carved cardboard cutouts who sparkle white while they beep and bop to Black music.

Yet the Black kids, who fill the detention halls for disrupting the school, aka for being Black, are relegated to dancing on Corny’s show the last Tuesday of every month. Tracy, who feels a kinship as a new resident of detention, connects deeply to dancing phenom Seaweed J. Stubbs (Brandon G. Stalling) and causes quite the kerfuffle when she bursts onto the scene and declares that Negro Day daily is the way to go.

The show, which was first a film in 1988 followed by a delightful Tony-winning Broadway musical in 2002 and a film version of the musical in 2007, has many deft touches and tackles some critical issues. The music navigates some choppy waters, which can be kitschy and full of witty word play, with Marc Shaiman’s rock and roll arrangements all sorts of wonderful, along with his lyrics he co-wrote with Scott Wittman. Tunes like “I Can Hear the Bells,” “Nicest Kids in Town” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” positively soar.

Those themes that permeate the narrative are deceptively biting, and quite bold in many spots. Looking at some of the principal characters, namely Corny and Link, their heroism and virtue are put into question early, which ultimately lead to their meeting the moment. Both icons in the Baltimore world of rats and flashers build careers on the backs of Black music, yet don’t necessarily hurry to do the right thing due to how it might damage their brand and their future.

That’s one of the aspects that makes Tracy and her heavenly family such heroes in the narrative. Tracy does not fit anywhere in the world she lives in, but finds her groove with other marginalized groups, and lifts up her loving family, including dad Wilbur (Christopher Swan) and mom Edna (Andrew Levitt).

Spending time with her parents and it’s easy to see where Tracy gets her warmth from. It’s exemplified in the fantastic performances of both Swan and Levitt. Their ditty, “Timeless to Me” has a joy and engagement that made the audience melt faster than butter on a frying pan.

Aspects of the script have not aged well, and some performances weren’t particularly sharp, namely Saverese’s Link, which plays a bit small. The special education jokes, which are the pointed insults of the jealous Amber, come off as cruel and out of touch today. The audience discomfort from this humor point was particularly palpable on opening night, and with shows everywhere taking a deeper look at how their content punches down, shouldn’t these moments here get a second look?

The heartbeat of the piece, aside from the fantastic turns by Swan and Levitt, comes from Motormouth Maybelle (Toneisha Harris), who brings the single best vocal performance on the stage with her rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a tune that should make one check your pulse if tears don’t start to form.

Cheeriness and joviality are not enough to tackle the scourge that is racism. And in the nearly 60 years since the musical’s setting of 1962, progress can feel like a painstaking exercise in futility. But as Motormouth says, “there’s a light in the darkness.”

It’s up to everyone, no matter how hard it is, to make sure that light never goes out. Tracy is sure as hell doing her part, one intense dance move at a time.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Broadway San Jose presents the national tour of “Hairspray”
Music and arrangements by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Based on the film by John Waters
Original choreography by Jerry Mitchell
Original direction by Jack O’Brien
San Jose Center for Performing Arts
255 S Almaden Blvd, San Jose, CA 95113
Through Nov. 28
Running time – Two hours with a 15-minute intermission
ID and proof of vaccination required
Tickets range from $38 – $118
For tickets, visit broadwaysanjose.com.

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