Hairspray the Musical• April 11, 2023• Eccles Theater
Reviewed by Kevin Rolfe
Photographs by Jeremy Daniel
The 2022/2023 season of Broadway at The Eccles has been one for the books! Shows like Moulin Rouge, Ain’t Too Proud, and Dear Evan Hansen has thrilled audiences. Eccles Theater has been packed to the rafters with satisfied patrons. The shows of this season have been excellent, but I must admit, when this season was announced, I was thrilled to see Hairspray on the list. I didn’t know there was a tour up until that point. Outside of the occasional regional or community theater productions, my Hairspray musical experience had ended. I really love this musical so I’m sure you can imagine how delighted I was to see it on the season schedule, and how much more ecstatic I was to be sitting in my seat Tuesday night waiting for the show to begin.
I was living in New York in the summer of 2003. The summer when Hairspray won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The show was everywhere and the buzz ran through the streets! Of course, being such a big deal, it was impossible to get a ticket. I didn’t see the show until the following year. Some of the original cast was still there, but most of the leads were not. The show was so incredible that I went back later that week to see it again. I’ve seen various touring productions and it’s remained one of my favorites ever since. The problem with loving a show so much is it’s easy to get stuck in the particulars of what you like about a musical. I tried my best to measure expectations, but I will admit I went into this touring production with high hopes.
It didn’t take long for my anxiety to be calmed. The show opens with Tracy Turnblad played by Niki Metcalf waking up to a new day in her hometown of Baltimore. I was put at ease the moment I heard Metcalf sing. Tracy sings a ton in this musical so having a lead with a voice you don’t like can make for a long night. While there were times Metcalf’s voice thinned out, whether, by Utah’s high altitude or perhaps the fact that she was dancing while she was singing most of the time, she wasn’t flat or off-key. I thought she had a lovely voice and a genuine spirit for the role.
“Good Morning Baltimore”, the show opener, set the tone for the show. I could quickly see that we were in for a good night. The sets are stripped down from the original production, but that’s not unusual for a tour. The orchestra sounded great, the ensemble sounded great, and there wasn’t a lead that wasn’t strong. That’s not always the case so I was happy, to say the least.
Not the next big (no pun intended. Ok maybe a little bit intended) role to pass my unfortunate high expectations test would be that of Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad. The role of Edna was famously played by legendary drag queen Divine in the 1988 John Waters film on which this musical is based. To honor Divine’s portrayal in that movie, the role of Edna has always been played by a man in drag. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Michael McKean of Spinal Tap fame, and Bruce Valanch perform as Edna. In this production, the role was played by Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West). Levitt (aka West) is probably best known from season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race for which he was named Miss Congeniality.
I don’t know the entire history of everyone who’s played Edna, but at least for me this is the first time I’ve seen an actual drag queen play Edna. And in an even further tip of the cap to Divine, Levitt (aka West) played Divine in the Weird Al Yankovic biopic starring Daniel Radcliff.
I thought Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West) did an exceptional job playing Edna Turnblad. The role produces big laughs from the audience as well as some of the musical’s most tenderhearted moments. “Your Timeless to Me” performed with Ralph Prentice Daniel as husband Wilbur Turnblad was as funny and as heartfelt as I’ve ever seen the song performed. I thought Levitt (aka West) did a great job making the role his own, while also giving a few nods to the original Edna, Harvey Fierstein. Some of the greatest moments were when he’d drop his voice into a low gravelly Fierstein-esque register.
I could give a detailed review of everyone in the cast, but this review would turn into a book. And I don’t think anyone wants that. So the last character I’d like to dedicate extensive time to is that of Penny Pingleton, performed by Emery Henderson. Now, as I mentioned, because of my love of this show, my expectation were sky high. Probably too high. Well, Penny is my favorite character. So I’m sure you can imagine the pressure Emery Henderson had performing my favorite character in front of me. Just kidding, she has no idea I exist. That’s as it should be.
I really wanted to see Penny Pingleton played a certain way. The slightly nerdy, clumsy best friend of Tracy Turnblad is a character that brings a lot of laughs due to her awkwardness and innocent charm. Sometimes the role gets played really big. The nerdiness is presented with big gestures and the dorkiness is overt and a bit loud. I have never cared for that version. I personally don’t think that’s the way the role is to be played.
When I saw Hairspray on Broadway, Penny was played by Jennifer Gambatese. She was in the original production as Brenda and then took over the role of Penny when Kerry Butler departed the show. I thought Gambatese played the role to perfection and was one of the main culprits for my return to see the show later that week.
My reason for bringing all this backstory up is to say that Emery Henderson is the first Penny I’ve seen since then to get the role absolutely right. The subtle things she does brought big laughs. Sometimes delayed because it would hit the audience a beat later what Penny actually said or did. The arch of her character is one that she needs to start subtly because, by the show’s end, there is no subtlety in her character. And that’s the great part. So when it’s big from the beginning the way her character gets lost.
In theater, there is the term “bits of business”. This in my experience is used for characters who are doing things behind the scenes as the leads are speaking or singing. Things are going on to still develop the supporting character or add additional context to the show or scene. Henderson did this to perfection. If you are going to the show here at Eccles, do not take your eyes off of her. You’ll miss so many great things if you do. She is perfect as Penny.
Let’s get into a few of the nitpicks before I finish this review on a high note. I felt like there was something weird going on with the sound. A lot of the lines in songs were lost because when everyone was singing, some of the leads were washed out. I don’t know if it was a balance with the soundboard, or if it was with the ensemble but there were some really great lines that weren’t heard either due to the mix or the volume of the orchestra. Whenever someone sang a solo, or if the orchestra wasn’t in full force, it was easy to hear them perfectly. It wasn’t a huge thing, but it was something I noticed.
I felt like the end of speaking lines were lost as well. Some of the jokes were rushed or the punchlines weren’t heard. The show provides plenty of laughs so losing a few isn’t the end of the world. There were times when I knew a line was coming and I felt like the audience missed the joke. It’s totally fair to say that maybe the audience just didn’t pick up on the joke. That’s the beauty of live theater. Every audience is different and a show can be interpreted differently every night.
So I lied. I do have a couple more cast members that I can’t refrain from talking about. The first is Charlie Bryant III as Seaweed J. Stubbs. He had an amazing voice and his dancing matched his pipes. I heard several people around me mentioning at intermission and on the way to the car that he was their favorite character. Seaweed brings a lot of positivity to the show and Bryant III conveyed that positivity to the audience inside Eccles Theater. His chemistry not only in befriending Tracy but also with Penny was so well done. He is making his National Tour debut with Hairspray. I think it’s the beginning of a lot of great things to come.
Lauren Johnson as Motormouth Maybelle, another cast member making their National Tour debut, is as good as it gets! I’ve had the privilege of seeing both Mary Bond Davis, who originated the role of Motormouth, and the legendary Darlene Love play this role and I think Johnson’s’ vocals might just be my favorite that I’ve heard. Her voice is smooth as silk, but as powerful as steel. She was funny, she was poignant, and she was moving. I wish there was a recording of her singing “I Know Where I’ve Been”. If there were, I would listen to it over and over. I think it’s very possible we will know Lauren Johnson’s name and voice for a long time. Especially in the world of musical theater.
When it comes down to it, this show is about the music. These songs are so great. I don’t know if there is a better show closer in musical history as good as “You Can’t Stop The Beat”! These songs were executed by the orchestra and cast brilliantly. It’s amazing the way the music by Marc Shaiman and the lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman are not only toe-tappers but also thought-provoking and not in your face about anything. The story of Hairspray seems as relevant if not more so now than it was when it opened 20 years ago. The direction by Jack O’Brien and the Choreography by Jerry Mitchell still stands up. I thought touring director Matt Lenz and tour choreographer Robbie Roby did a great job keeping O’Brien’s and Mitchell’s work intact.
One of my favorite things about musical theater is seeing the reaction of an audience at intermission and after the entire performance. This was a great audience. They were buzzing with excitement before the show started and that continued throughout the show with their applause and their laughter. But during the intermission and walking out of the theater, there was an effusive love for this production. As I write this I’m trying to talk myself out of going back this weekend. It really was that good. This production honors the production that opened twenty years ago in every way.
For information on tickets to Hairspray or any of the other Broadway at the Eccles productions go to saltlakecity.broadway.com