This is how IMDb, an online movie database, describes Hairspray.
“A ‘pleasantly plump’ teenager teaches 1962 Baltimore a thing or two about integration after landing a spot on a local TV dance show.”
Now, if that was all the information you had about the Tony Award-winning musical, then it might come off as thorny. Though historically there is an intersection between the swell of the Gay Rights Movement and the Black Freedom Movement in the 1960s, Hairspray’s sugar-coated narrative about racial inequity is neither remarkable nor revelatory.
But that’s not what makes Hairspray compelling.
There’s a Road We Must Travel
Hairspray is the brainchild of indie filmmaker John Waters. Waters was a fan of Baltimore’s Buddy Deane Show, a popular teen dance television program. The Buddy Deane Show ended in 1964 after producers refused to succumb to pressures to integrate.
Around the same time, Waters met Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as the big, blonde, and beautiful drag queen, Divine. Divine appeared in many of Waters’ shorts and full-length films, including Hairspray, which was released in 1988. And though Divine died just a few weeks after the movie’s release, her influence is far-reaching.
But all this subtext might be missed by audiences whose only experience with Hairspray is the 2007 movie featuring John Travolta in a 30-pound fat suit or Hairspray Live. Fortunately, it is not lost on the cast and creatives of the current national tour, which cradles the show’s past in a way that feels consequential.
Use That Pride in Our Hearts to Lift Us Up, Up to Tomorrow
Andrew Levitt, also known as Nina West, a notable drag queen in his own right, leads the tour. He plays Edna, the mother of teen dance sensation Tracy. The way in which Levitt leans into Edna’s arc feels like an homage to Waters’ original intent, honors Divine’s legacy, and just might make this whole man-in-the-dress trope a little more palatable.
Levitt’s ardor is met with dewy enthusiasm by Niki Metcalf as Tracy whose genuineness is sweet but not cloying. But it is Sandie Lee’s quiet fortitude as Motormouth Maybelle that confronts the audience with the show’s battle cry and its real sense of urgency.
‘Cause There’s a Struggle That We Have Yet to Win
There is an exuberance to this production of Hairspray that is palpable. Moreover, its place in the theater canon as a precursor to shows like Kinky Boots and The Prom is undeniable. And although the show is a period piece and has some problematic moments, its broad truisms about allyship, representation, and acceptance feel prescient. And that is what makes it truly worthwhile.
Hairspray runs through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information visit https://www.dpacnc.com/.