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'Hairspray' flaunts plenty of style but offers little substance

A fabulous ensemble outshines its star.

Erin E. Walker as Tracy Turnblad
Erin E. Walker stars as Tracy Turnblad

Whether you boasted a bouffant, beehive, bob, fringe or 'fro, or kept it frosted, combed or lifted, that '60s hairstyle was a personal statement in the persistent dichotomy between self-expression and conformity.

At the time, and as represented in John Waters’s 1988 cult-classic film, Hairspray, there was another form that served to simultaneously divide and unite: dancing. In his film, and in Theatre Under the Stars’ (TUTS) perky production, fancy footwork remains firmly at the heart of the story’s visual entertainment and dramatic tension.

Bringing this medium of movement to the Malkin Bowl stage is choreographer Julie Tomaino, whose ebullient arrangement of steps, twists, twirls and hand-jives is reason enough to see the show. Tomaino should be lauded for recapturing a national youth turning to the 'Mashed Potato' and the 'Madison' in the midst of war, presidential assassination and segregation.

dancers on The Corny Collins Show The multi-talented cast had plenty of opportunities to show off their dance skills

Bolstered by musical director Chris D. King and his vibrant band, Hairspray’s ensemble shone, providing the lead cast members with a buoyant space to transition from song to scene to song.

Unfortunately, not all the characters capitalized on this offering. Namely, lead actor Erin E. Walker often appeared lacklustre in front of the shimmering set’s cascading streamers. Though not lacking in voice, Walker failed to invigorate her portrayal of Tracy Turnblad with the childish sense of intuitive goodness that her instant lovability hinges on.

During Tracy’s first appearance on her televised object-of-obsession, "The Corny Collin’s Show," she’s asked by its host, “As your first act as president, what would you do?” to which she replies, “I’d make every day Negro day!” (Once a month, the fictional TV network airs ‘Negro Day’, a day where black music is played and black dancers dance to it. It is Tracy’s favourite day, the day to which she credits her winning dance moves.)

But for Tracy’s naïveté to acquire its full charm, her persona has to be at first unaware of her activism; she doesn’t even consider that she’s risking her dream on her very first day living it, but would risk it just the same if she were. Corny Collins responds appropriately, “I read you like tomorrow’s headlines!”

Walker didn’t define Tracy’s magnetism with the same effervescence as the likes of Ricki Lake (1988) or Nikki Blonsky (2007). She amounted to passing from number to number with the impetus of the show instead of being the reason for it.

Another less satisfying role was Ryan Purdy as Tracy’s father Wilbur, who remained the one-dimensional goofball instead of the goofball with a heart of gold.

Hairspray moms scolding their daughters

"Mama, I'm a big girl now"

This being said, the space created at centre stage left plenty of room for a large personality, which was more than filled by Andy Toth en travesti as Edna Turnblad—a role first played by Divine, a drag star, cult actor and personal friend of John Waters. Toth graced his performance with all the ungracefulness one would hope for.

Especially as the play came to its follicular finale, the stage literally revolved around Toth as he triumphantly emerged from a giant aerosol can.

“I watch that tramp and I’m embarrassed to be white,” Edna remarked in the original film, reacting to the unapologetic racism of Velma Von Tussle, producer of the Corny Collins show and the story’s main antagonist. I imagine a present-day Edna tweeting her remark, followed by #blacklivesmatter.

White guilt was an important message in the late '80s, and it’s no less important now. Go ahead, flick on a Fox News broadcast for a horrifying reminder of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back marathon of racial equality. Tracy Turnblad serves as a reminder that everyone is required for change, not only those who require it.

The Corny Collins Show

Everything's bleachy-keen on The Corny Collins Show

While the original satire poked fun at how thoughtless racism always is, most of its successors channel the film's sense of fun for its own sake. But not to a fault — the message of breaking down racial barriers still remains, but as a backdrop for the fun.

Although sometimes fun can be a powerful expression of unity — the hair, the dance moves — the more ‘out there’ they all are, the more they bring us together.

TUTS’ Hairspray is that: fun. And a whole lot of it.


Show continues to Aug. 22 (even numbered days in July, odd numbered in August) at
Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park. Showtime is 8 p.m. except Aug. 1st when show starts at 7 p.m. due to the Honda Celebration of Light at English Bay. More info, tickets at

Did Hairspray leave you light-headed? Are you going back for another application? Tell me on Twitter: @thatlaba

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