Broadway Across Canada’s “Hairspray” is deliciously, devastatingly relevant

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      Hairspray is an undeniable nostalgia trip. 

      Maybe you’re reminiscing about the 1988 John Waters film, which presents a fictionalized version of 1962 Baltimore that’s saccharinely subversive. Maybe you grew up on the 2007 movie musical with Zac Efron playing leading man Link Larkin. 

      Or maybe, the beehives and twist dances are enough to transport you back to the ’60s without all those intermediary layers—an early-noughties conception of the era that gets less and less grounded as fewer and fewer people were alive to experience it themselves. 

      Since premiering in 2002, Hairspray has been a rip-roaring success of a musical. Plucky, plump heroine Tracy Turnblad exudes theatre kid energy as a dance-crazed teen who manages to join Baltimore’s premier teen idol program, The Corny Collins Show, and then lobbies for its racial integration. 

      The central concept of a clueless white teenager discovering racism and then leading the civil rights charge in the space of a few weeks is definitely a little questionable these days—hell, Motormouth Maybelle (an incredible Deidre Lang) points out that the Black community has been fighting for long before Tracy ever got involved—but that’s what we get from art based on political commentary from almost 40 years ago.

      Caroline Eiseman brings eager earnestness to her portrayal of Tracy, managing to balance a bouffanted lace-front while nailing the complex dance moves and delivering stunning solos.

      Not that there are that many solos; Hairspray lives on the size and spectacle of its ensemble. The group numbers are big, bombastic, and overwhelming in the sheer scale of how many performers are onstage, hitting their steps, all at once. The original Broadway creative team of director Jack O’Brien and choreographer Jerry Mitchell returned for this touring production, which might explain the complexity and pizzazz captured in every mashed potato.  

      “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” a duet between Tracy’s besotted parents (normalize parents being horny!) stands out as one of the simplest numbers, with just Edna (Greg Kalafatas) and Wilbur (Ralph Prentice Daniel) singing an almost vaudevillian love song on the front portion of the stage, while the set quick-changes behind the curtain.

      For a musical based on skewering sizeism and racism, it’s sad so many parts of Hairspray still ring true today. Tracy makes it onto The Corny Collins Show using moves she learned from Seaweed (Josiah Rogers), much like TikTok dance crazes disproportionately originate from Black dance artists but are leveraged into fame and fortune by white creators. Fat people remain largely excluded from performing arts, let alone if they’re also people of colour. And even some of the less explored conflicts—like parents reprimanding their kids for listening to “coloured music”—speak to continued anxieties about whose art is considered good and bad. 

      But it’s easy not to think too hard about all that. The dialogue is quippy and witty; the set production is flawless; and the synchronized colourful cavorting of several dozen dancers in shift dresses and slacks all adds to the atmosphere of feel-good festivity. 

      Hairspray is a joy. And, like the motion in the ocean and the sun in the sky, nothing can stand in the way of progress—even if sometimes we’re going in circles.


      When: April 3 to 7

      Where: Queen Elizabeth Theatre (630 Hamilton Street, Vancouver)

      Admission: From $61, available here