Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: "Hairspray" from Pittsburgh CLO.

Once again Pittsburgh CLO comes across with a polished, first-rate production. This time it’s Hairspray and the charming near-cartoon has the right style and look.

It is based on John Waters’ 1988 same- named movie, which some people feel is a camp classic, especially given that it features drag star Divine. The Broadway musical version opened in August 2002 with Harvey Fierstein starring in the stage transformation of the role Divine created. He got lots of praise as did the whole thing which ran for a six and half years and garnered eight Tonys.

Clearly it remains a lightweight show but, by not aiming for camp, instead it stays cute, friendly and sincere, well in keeping with the many simple-minded songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The show does have an underpinning theme about racism in the early 1960s, but it never pushes that too hard. And director/choreographer Barry Ivan and his skilled cast have found the way to play it.

Just to be sure you know what it’s about: in 1962 Baltimore chubby teen Tracy Turnblad wants to become a dancer on a local record-hop TV show. She learns terrific steps from black students when she and her friend Penny become pals with black kids. Penny’s racist mother Prudy does all she can to stop that. But Tracy’s proportion-challenged mother, Edna, is delighted when her daughter gets on the show. A third mother figures in this , Velma Von Tussle, another racist, who produces the TV show and does all she can to make her daughter Amber a star. Meanwhile Tracy and Penny do all they can to get their black friends on the show and into contests.

The book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan keeps everything fundamental with a kind of warm charm, simple gags and gentle skimming over references to American culture of the time. Consequently this doesn’t try to get major mileage out of period nostalgia nor become a heavily pointed piece about racism. It exists on its own plane.

Undoubtedly many people expect to see Paul Vogt make the most of Edna (the Divine/Fierstein role) given the character’s outsized reputation. Vogt, in fact, has played it Broadway. Here he sometimes underplays as if trying to make Edna real, doing that well, but at other times he shifts into different voices, as if to remind everyone that he’s a guy in drag. Ivan should have reined in such shtick. Vogt, however, definitely sings better than does the grating, gravelly Fierstein on the CD of the show.

Everyone else does consistent justice to the concept. I was especially impressed with the singing of Luba Mason and Kecia Lewis-Evans as Velma and Motormouth Maybelle, a black community leader. Plus Madeline Doherty shines in three character roles, a talent she displayed before as cute, little, libidinous biddy Hold- Me, Touch-Me in CLO’s take on The Producers. By the way, five local talents have small roles in the cast including the classy Maria Becoates-Bey.

Although Shaiman and Wittman created a lot of songs sounding like early 60s pop/rock they never seem to making fun of the style but rather having fun with it. As a more musically interesting plus they also created some catchy R & B/soul numbers for the black characters.


Hairspray continues through Sunday July 31st at 2 p.m. at Benedum Center, Downtown.
412-456-6666 or

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