Hairspray

State Theater
New Brunswick, NJ
At the risk of sounding like a Grinch—because the enthusiastic audience clearly enjoyed the production far more than I did—I was disappointed in the current national tour of Hairspray. Maybe I've been spoiled because I've recently seen two first-rate tours (Fiddler on the Roof and Rent) that are as good as anything playing presently on Broadway. They could be brought into a Broadway house tomorrow and find a warm welcome. But much as I appreciate Hairspray (with a witty book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the John Waters film, and an infectious, exuberant score by Scott Wittman and Mar Shaiman), this roadshow production is brought down by uneven casting and poor sound design. This production works best in rousing ensemble numbers, like the irresistible "You Can't Stop the Beat," where the weaker actors are lost in the crowd.

Director Matt Lenz has captured the right tone. The story is told clearly and he has cas,t very well, two of the key roles. Jerry O'Boyle plays Edna Turnblad with panache. His line readings, inflection, and timing are clearly modeled on Harvey Fierstein's. But that's OK; Fierstein played the role to perfection, and if O'Boyle is not winning points for originality, he is delivering a thoroughly enjoyable performance. He may not have Fierstein's star power, but he catches every laugh, and the show works whenever he is on. Brooklynn Pulver likewise makes a very satisfying Tracy Turnblad. And Erin Sullivan is on target as bratty Amber Von Tussle. But some of the supporting roles are badly miscast. The acting of Drew Davidson (as Wilbur Turnblad) and Lisa Linette (as Motormouth Maybelle) is embarrassingly amateurish. Linette delivers every line in the same sing-songy, unthinking way. When the peerless Ruth Brown created the role in the original John Waters film, she had attitude, she had backbone; you knew she'd been through a lot and wasn't going to take mistreatment from anyone. She delivered every line with authority. Linette appears happy to display her pretty singing voice. And the bland Davidson took the life out of one of the show's most charming routines, "You're Timeless to Me." The unbalanced sound design—in which the over-amplified band sometimes drowned out performers—was a recurring problem throughout the performance I attended; but it particularly harmed that simple, offhand number, which should swing with the easy grace of a Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle recording, but instead was cranked up to rock-band intensity, with the music blaring over lyrics that deserved to be heard.

(Pictured: Jerry O'Boyle and Brooklynn Pulver, Photo by Phil Martin)

Chip Deffaa
Cabaret Scenes
March 28, 2009
www.cabaretscenes.org