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Review: ‘Hairspray’ at the FICA is a sneaky fun time

Sept. 21, 2022 Updated Wed., Sept. 21, 2022 at 6:16 p.m.

Niki Metcalf and Andrew Levitt are Tracy and Edna Turnblad in the national tour of “Hairspray,” running through Sunday at the First Interstate Center for the Arts in Spokane.  (Jeremy Daniel )
Niki Metcalf and Andrew Levitt are Tracy and Edna Turnblad in the national tour of “Hairspray,” running through Sunday at the First Interstate Center for the Arts in Spokane. (Jeremy Daniel )

There is something sneaky about the musical “Hairspray.”

Just like parents might hide some pureed veggies in a picky child’s mac and cheese for added nutrition, the musical adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 movie uses bright colors, comedy and catchy tunes to tell a tale about body positivity, racial equity and acceptance.

Set in 1962 Baltimore, “Hairspray,” running though Sunday at the First Interstate Center for the Arts, tells the story of a plus-size teenage girl, Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf), whose sky-high bouffant often lands her in trouble at school. She doesn’t care, however, because her big dream is to be a dancer on the afternoon sock hop TV show, “The Corny Collins Show.” When an audition is announced, she and her friend Penny (Emery Henderson) head to the studio, where she’s instantly rejected by the bigoted producer Velma (Addison Garner), whose daughter Amber (Ryahn Evers) is the show’s pretty blonde (and pretty mean) star. But Tracy catches the attention of Corny Collins (Billy Dawson) and wannabe crooner (and Amber’s boyfriend) Link Larkin (Nick Cortazzo).

Just as society aims to keep Tracy down, so does her mother, Edna (Andrew Levitt), who pushes her own insecurity about her weight onto her daughter. More supportive is her father, Wilbur (Ralph Prentice Daniel), a goofy, sweet man who only wants the best for his girls.

In detention for her “hair don’t,” Tracy gets to know some of her school’s Black students, including siblings Seaweed (Charlie Bryant III) and Little Inez (Joi D. McCoy), the children of Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee), an R&B record producer and host of the Collins show’s once-a-month “Negro day.” Using a dance step she learned from Seaweed, Tracy impressed Collins at a sophomore dance and lands a spot on the show. When Velma objects, Collins argues, “It’s time we put kids in the show who look like the kids who watch the show.”

Tracy becomes wildly popular, helps her mother find the bravery to leave their apartment, and begins a flirtation with Larkin. Then she decides to use her platform to integrate “The Corny Collins Show,” which doesn’t go as planned. Until it does.

The strength of a show like “Hairspray,” beyond the Tony-winning music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittmann, is that it really likes its characters. Tracy never doubts her own worth, and when she decides to take a seemingly radical action, it’s for a simple reason: She wants everyone to be able to dance. Edna learns to put past hurts behind her and reclaim her own long-lost dreams. Link is able to see Tracy for who she is, not what size she wears, and Motormouth Mable is able to rally all involved when the work proves difficult.

Is it simplistic? Yes, of course. It’s a Broadway musical. Does it have its heart in the right place? Absolutely.

The cast of the national tour in Spokane is strong across the board. Levitt, as Edna, towers over everyone – literally. As a longtime drag performer – he competed as Nina West on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” – he brings a real presence to Edna, whether she’s wearing a simple housecoat or a more fabulous design. Edna and Wilbur’s Act II duet, “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” was completely charming and lovely, and Levitt and Daniel’s voices paired nicely.

As Tracy, Metcalf is a spark plug of optimistic energy. She showed strong vocal range in her Act II reprise of “Good Morning, Baltimore,” and she and Cortazzo dazzled with their duet “It Takes Two.” A highlight was the triple mother-daughter number, “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” with Tracy and Edna, Velma and Amber, and Penny and her mother, Prudy (Emmanuelle Zeesman, who plays every other adult female in the show to frequently weird effect). Speaking of weird, Henderson’s Penny nearly steals every scene she’s in, taking nerdy to all new, delicious heights.

As Mabel, Lee gives one of the night’s best performances in a soulful, searing “I Know Where I’ve Been.” It’s the emotional center of the show, a song that speaks to all of the characters, and Lee nails it.

The inevitable conclusion comes in the deliriously fun finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” The villains are vanquished, true love prevails, “The Corny Collins Show” is integrated and Edna embraces her inner fabulousness. It’s a terrific ending to a show that may be naïve about solving the world’s problems, but has a lot of heart. And that has to count for something.

“Hairspray,” reviewed Tuesday, continues at the First Interstate Center for the Arts though Sunday, as part of the Best of Broadway Series. For tickets and information, visit broadwayspokane.com.

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