My Gay Toronto - MGT Stage

Hairspray sings and dances to a triumphant happy ending for everyone

by Drew Rowsome - Photos by Seanna Kennedy

'Cause you can't stop
The motion of the ocean
Or the rain from above
They can try to stop this paradise
We're dreaming of
But you can't stop the rhythm
Of two hearts in love to stay
You can't stop the beat!

And you can't resist the exuberance and sheer feel-good joy of Hairspray.
The Lower Ossington Theatre has always been good at taking Broadway classics and scaling them down to fit their resources. By filling the cast with rising triple-threats - of which they seem to have a limitless supply, Hairspray boasts an ensemble of 22 with nary a flaw among them - sheer energy papers over any constraints. But with Hairspray, the glass ceiling is shattered and a slick, exuberant production bursting with joy emerges.

Hairspray is the epitome of John Waters' exaltation of the outsider. Who knew that the genius behind Pink Flamingos and Carsick would provide the genesis for heartwarming family entertainment? The show is simultaneously an anachronism and torn from the headlines. Tracy Turnblad's struggle to integrate an afternoon television top 40 show may be a historical tale, but echoes of Ferguson, Indiana and Mad Pride rise out of the celebration to remind that we're not as progressive as we like to think: the cathartic crowd-pleasing happy ending of Hairspray is only a beginning. 

Director Alan Kinsella keeps the action moving smoothly and frenetically while letting the themes surface - Edna Turnball as a trans activist is subtly teased but unmissable - amidst many clever bits of business that give the pop art '60s setting a surprisingly realistic basis. The sets are eye-popping and efficient with designer Michael Galloro making a little do a lot. Choreographer Greg Carruthers takes full advantage of an incredible chorus who execute big production numbers with infectious showmanship. A prison-set number that references Fosse before exploding into a hilarious but impressive tap extravaganza is one clever highlight among many. The invisible band sounds like a full orchestra and the vocal harmonies are a wall of sound that fills the theatre while letting the leads shine, kudos to musical director Mike Ross (Jesus Christ Superstar, Hedwig and the Angry Inch).

With the book structured as a series of showstoppers that escalate, it is impossible to praise every performer, though they all deserve mention. Michele Shuster as plucky heroine Tracy Turnblad anchors the whole production and her charm and sparkle while holding centrestage with ease. That she manages to follow Shahi Teruko who rips the roof off the theatre with "I Know Where I've Been," is a testament to teamwork and some stellar vocals and dance moves. Michelle Nash (Sound of Music, Shrek, [title of show]) goes from ditz to siren with equivalent vocal fireworks; Matt McKay is a sexy powerhouse paean to his catchphrase "the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice;" Thomas James Finn is as smooth as he is smarmy; Aaron Wolfe's hip swivels are as sex symbol sweet as his vocals and barely suppressed lust; Heidi Michelle Thomas is a villain who the audience loves to hate and can't help cheering when she delivers a tour de force "The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs;" Dalton Bolton is an impossibly limber, and good-looking, chorus boy in multiple roles while Laura Squire grabs every comic moment offered and struts with it.

While Tracy and Link's love story is ostensibly the central one, Mark Willett (Avenue Q, Little Shop of Horrors, Hair) and Jeffrey Bowers steal the romantic component with a delightful and tear-inducing "You're Timeless to Me." Bowers as Edna Turnball has the toughest role: how to fill the unforgettable pumps of Divine, Harvey Fierstein, and even John Travolta? He makes it his own with a transfixing trans twist. The only complaint is that he is so vibrant and wabi-sabi glamorous that the fat jokes don't work. When she sings, "Gina Lollobrigida step aside," it is a warning not a lyrical gag. But the love radiated between the pair takes the inclusive and subversive themes of Hairspray and wraps them glowingly around every misfit toy that deserves a happy ending.

And Hairspray gives everyone, even the villains but especially the audience, a happy ending. "You can't stop the beat," just take the opportunity to dance and sing along with it.

Hairspray continues until Sun, April 12 at the Randolph Theatre, 736 Bathurst St.