Hairspray at Village Theatre

Once every sixteen years, it’s worthwhile seeing a Broadway gem, don’t you think?

I’ve just had that unique experience. I was one of the fortunate audience members who, in 2002, witnessed the unveiling of a juggernaut at the 5th Avenue Theatre – the world premiere of the Broadway bound show, Hairspray. That was before my reviewing days; I was merely a member of the audience, agog at the music, the story, the frenetic energy, of the “pre-Broadway” production. I remember walking away that night almost out of breath, bouncing with enthusiasm, and though not humming the tunes, certainly feeling good about the couple of hours I’d spent in my seat.

Fast forward sixteen years and shift a few miles east to Issaquah, where Village Theatre has unveiled its own production of Hairspray. Little has changed (though I’m told Village’s producers borrowed more from the look and feel of the original 1988 John Waters non-musical film than did the 5th Avenue). Tracy Turnblad is still the bouncy-though-overweight Baltimore teen of 1962 who dreams of becoming a TV show dancer and ends up attacking her city’s separate-but-equal culture head on. The music is still bouncy and loud. (Caveat: I wasn’t all that fond of 1960’s music even in 1962. Yes, I’m that old.)

The catchiest tune is still the closing number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” The most fun tune is the one that isn’t even really 1960’s music, but a throwback to Vaudeville: “You’re Timeless To Me,” as performed by Tracy’s decidedly overweight mom and wacky dad, who come across as aging Vaudevillians through most of the show.

Sixteen years after the premier, the racial sub-plot seems almost staid in light of today’s “Black Lives Matter” movement and the current state of race relations in America. Talk of “Negro day” starkly plants the show in 1962, but the naive way the characters approach race relations harks back to the much tamer, much gentler America, that existed before Dr. King had his dream in 1964. It’s inextricably a part of Hairspray – Tracy’s interaction with “colored” people is the underlying impetus for her rebellion even after she has achieved her dream of dancing on TV – but in the end, it doesn’t hold up as well as the much weightier problem of obesity displayed by Tracy and her mom.

Hairspray’s underlying conceit is that people come in all sizes as well as all colors, and the show does a nice job of showing that, in spite of one’s girth, a person can achieve her dreams. This part of the story does hold up. That there are still few dancers of dimension even in the modern age is as regrettable as the fact that 68.8 percent of Americans are considered obese. (The reality: if you want to dance, you need to be in that 31.2 percent minority. Ah, Tracy Turnblad, the shame of it all!)

Still, Hairspray uses weight as only the most easily visible “defect” that keeps young girls and boys from achieving their dreams. Whether it’s the wrong hair, or a face that’s less than classic, or whatever flaw an individual may have, Hairspray tells us that we can overcome. Work hard and use what talents you have, and you’ve got a chance.

Whether or not that’s true, well, it’s an uplifting message, Tracy Turnblad is an inspiring character, and even though I’m no longer able to bounce with enthusiasm sixteen years after the world premier, I’ve got to admit that the sheer energy of Hairspray sent me forth into the night with good, good, good vibrations. Certainly the rest of the nearly packed audience was driven to their feet by the show and I suspect that you will be as well. Hairspray may be showing its age around the edges, but it’s still a feel-good two-plus hour tribute to what’s good in America. You’ll walk away believing that, even after sixteen years, you can’t stop the beat.

 

Hairspray at Village Theatre: in Issaquah at the Francis J. Gaudette through July 1; moves to Everett’s Performing Arts Center, July 6 – 29. Box Offices: Issaquah, 425-392-2202; Everett, 425-257-8600.

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