Sweet gum in the hair

And other kinks to work out


While not exactly a hair-don’t, there are a few kinks to comb out of the Toronto production of Hairspray, running until Sep 26 at the Princess Of Wales Theatre.

Sure, the musical (based on John Waters’ film) garnered a ton o’ Tonys, but the Mirvish boys’ newest production seems too eager to copy the irrepressible whimsy that won Broadway’s fickle devotion.

Case in point: mother rotunda Edna Turnblad, played by Jay Brazeau who pulls off a drag hat trick – a straight man, playing Harvey Fierstein, playing a woman. Edna’s emergence from self-hating hausfrau to boldly bodacious babe is the story’s most compelling arc, but, while emulating Fierstein’s interpretation vividly, there’s a question of veritas when one actor copies another so thoroughly.

Vanessa Olivarez is suitably sunny as Tracy Turnblad, and can dance like nobody’s business. The largest problem here is vocal in nature. As Tracy’s hair gets bigger, her singing voice becomes thinner. By show’s end she is clearly struggling with the demanding songs.

Michael Torontow is likable as Link, Tracy’s main clit-on, but doesn’t quite manage the teen-heartthrob persona; he seems awkwardly about the same age as TV host Corny Collins (Paul McQuillan) and Tracy’s father Wilbur (Tom Rooney).

Rooney is one of the best things in the show. His duet with Brazeau captures an affection between the couple that feels sweetly genuine. He sings effortlessly and moves about the stage with perfect ease.

Tara Macri and Susan Henley crackle as the mother-daughter tag-team from hell, and Jennifer Stewart delights as geeky best friend Penny. Matthew Morgan thrills with sinewy sexual energy as Seaweed Stubbs, while 12-year-old Shennel Campbell belts out a mean alto. Motormouth Maybelle, played by Fran Jaye, stops the show with a thundering rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” and adds real oomph to the show’s themes of segregation and prejudice in the 1960s.

These performances throw into stark relief the mere adequateness of the show. It’s often hard to make out the lyrics; strong singers like Jaye and Henley show this may have more to do with other cast members’ weak singing than a poor sound mix. Straining to hear Scott Wittman and Mark Shaiman’s brilliant score becomes tiring, as the synthesized mush of music overpowers tepid voices.

Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is tight and energetic, and is complemented by William Ivey Long’s fabulous costumes. David Rockwell’s kitschy set keeps the audience’s attention, while director Jack O’Brien moves quickly through weaker sections.

Overall, Hairspray is sort of like eating chocolate bars for dinner; it starts out with a fun, slightly heady rush, but leaves you with an unsatisfied suspicion that you could very well have done without it.

* Hairspray continues at the Princess Of Wales Theatre (300 King St W) until Sep 26; call (416) 872-1212.

 

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Culture, TV & Film, Arts, Toronto

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