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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Theatre review: Hairspray is destined to be the hit of the summer

It is shaping up to be the summer of the musical in Vancouver as Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) presents a production of Hairspray that rivals anything currently on the professional stages around town right now.

While the choice of Hairspray as part of the TUTS season would have been made long before the real-world riots that took place in Baltimore earlier this year, it helps to underscore the play’s central theme. There is an urgency and heartbreaking realization that for all of our gains, there still remains so much more to do. As Cecilly Day brings down the house with her stirring rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” in act two, the words take on a new urgency, and once again becomes a rallying cry: “There’s a road we must travel, there’s a promise we must make, oh, but the riches, the riches will be plenty, worth the risks and the chances that we take.”

Based on the 1988 John Waters’ cult classic, our heroine, the plus-sized teen Tracy Turnblad, is not only out to land a role on television with The Corny Collins Show but along the way helps bring an end to racial segregation in 1960s Baltimore.

But for all its serious message that lies just below the surface, Hairspray is anything but a downer. This effervescent musical is so joyful that only those still flying a Confederate flag would be unable to find it uplifting and fun.

In the role of Tracy, Erin E. Walker is so full of perky energy and optimism that we can’t help but cheer her on as she goes about her quest to integrate her favourite television program. There is an easiness to Walker’s portrayal that emphasizes the sincerity of Tracy’s motivations, that it really is as simple as just doing the right thing.

Putting on her his 54 EEEs once again, Andy Toth reprises the role of Tracy’s mom Edna (he previously stepped into the oversized heels of this oversized character in the 2011 Arts Club production after the original actor suffered a stroke). Traditionally played by a man, beginning with drag superstar Divine in the movie, Toth brings a genuine tenderness to the role and a great big powerful voice to match.

Erin F. Walker and Andy Toth as Tracy and Edna Turnblad. Photo by Tim Matheson.
Erin F. Walker and Andy Toth as Tracy and Edna Turnblad. Photo by Tim Matheson.

While clearly the stars of the show, Walker and Toth have some equally terrific support. Georgia Beaty takes on multiple roles with gusto, including a terrific turn as the prudish Prudy Pingleton, a hilarious portrayal of the prison Matron in the inspired “The Big Dollhouse”, and as an equally funny gym teacher. Dustin Freeland brings his boyish charm to the role of Link Larkin, matched with his wonderful voice.

Chris D. King does double-duty himself as both musical director to the spot-on nine piece orchestra, and in the role of Corny Collins, a perfect match against Elsye Maloway and Lori Ashton Zondag as the Van Tussels.  In her stage debut as Little Inez, Marisa Gold proves she is destined for big things.

As Motormouth Maybelle, powerhouse Cecilly Day had the audience clapping long before the final strains of “I Know Where I’ve Been”. For a show that uses its comedy to highlight its underlying serious message, Day’s rendition produced chills even on the warm opening night, and brought us to the real heart of this show.

But while there is not a weak link in this very large cast, the real star of this show is choreographer Julie Tomaino who has created some of the most intricate dance numbers that you will see on stage this year. It is a testament to her skills, and that of this show’s cast, that she is able to pull such captivating and energetic dance performances from a group made up of primarily amateur and pre-professional actors. Director Sarah Rodgers brings it all together in a glorious cacophony of sound and visuals that will make Hairspray the hit of the summer.

Never mind the big hair! This is one big summer hit!

Hairspray with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Theatre Under the Stars production, playing in repertory with Oliver! at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park until August 22. Visit for tickets and information.

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