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REVIEW: Thrilling, Retro Hairspray Earns Its Shots (Hennepin Theatre Trust)

Aloft, L-R Sage as Gilbert, Kyle Kavully as Thad, Charlie Bryant III as Seaweed J. Stubbs, and the Company of Hairspray, now playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The Tony award-winning musical Hairspray has returned to Minneapolis, and it is just as fun and relevant as ever. This up-beat musical set in the early 1960’s focuses on the problems of fat phobia and racism, all while keeping the audience grooving with its upbeat music and positive message. At this exciting theatrical event, you will be transported back in time and dance the night away.

To simply describe it, Hairspray is pure fun. Unlike many other fun-forward musicals, however, Hairspray also makes a statement (or two) about the American world in the 1960s, and the world we live in today. Shows like this help remind me how recent segregation was in our nation’s history and how we are not done fighting for equal access and equal rights.

Niki Metcalf as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Hairspray opened on Broadway roughly 21 years ago, all the way back in 2002, and a lot has changed in our world since then. As a result, going into the performance, I was worried that the show’s message would be hidden under fat jokes, transphobia, and white savior-ism. While the show might fall short at times (can we please be done with “man in a dress” jokes?), however, it still succeeds in spreading an invigorating message of love, positivity, and acceptance.

One of the biggest highlights of Hairspray is the array of fabulous dance sequences. The story itself focuses on Tracy Turnblad, a girl who just wants to dance. This results in plenty of excellent dances that not only make sense within the story, but also inform it. I loved seeing a glimpse into 60s dance culture. While I am no dance historian, the dances felt authentic to me and transported me back in time. The dance moves combined with the wonderful period costumes dazzled me. This all-out extravaganza of dance, glitz, and glamor is one of the show’s great draws.

While the whole cast is packed with talented performers, the standouts for me were Niki Metcalf (playing Tracy Turnblad) and Nick Cortazzo (playing Link Larkin). As Tracy, Metcalf holds a lot on her shoulders, with nearly every song featuring her in some way. Her performance exuded positivity – energetic, and authentic. Cortazzo, meanwhile, was perfect for the handsome and talented Link Larkin. When he started to sing “”It Takes Two”, I could hear the audience audibly respond to his lovely singing voice. Judging from the applause they got, other audience favorites included Andrew Levitt (as Edna Turnblad) and Melaine Puente Ervin (as Motormouth Maybelle).

L-R: Jade Turner, Melanie Puente Ervin, and Sydney Archibald as The Dynamites in Hairspray. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Hairspray has many memorable songs, notable among them includes the grand finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat”, a song which has gained popularity even among those unfamiliar with the show. However, my favorite moment was the song “I Know Where I’ve Been”. While this latter song is slower and lacks extravagant dance moves, it is strong and powerful; as Motormouth Maybelle, Puente Ervin shone bright, displaying her vocal chops at their best. A detail I really appreciated was that the three white characters on stage did not sing along. They were there, hand-in-hand with their black friends, but they kept their mouths shut, supporting and allowing their Black counterparts to speak for themselves. I don’t know if this was a change, or something that these characters have always done in this scene, but it very much felt the correct move for the song and for that point in the story.

All in all, Hairspray is well-worth seeing, and with the short run they have here in town, you’ll need to see catch soon.

Hairspray plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through January 15th.

Boo Segersin