Review: Village Theatre’s Divine ‘Hairspray’

Remember how fun the show was 16 years ago? It still is
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The cast of Hairspray. Hairspray Production photo.

As Village Theatre has proven any number of times (its 2009 Show Boat is one unforgettable example), putting a big show in a small house doesn’t necessarily constrict it, it intensifies it. Its current production of Hairspray packs all the fun of the first time Seattle saw the show—the now-legendary 2002 pre-Broadway run at the 5th Avenue—into a concentrated ball of joy that the stage seems barely able to contain. The production numbers produce goosebumps, the emotional moments are poleaxe blows, the finale left me ecstatic—and as for Alex Jaeger’s costumes, you’ll practically need sunglasses. And I’m convinced that  Hairspray belongs in that select group of musicals, alongside West Side Story and A Little Night Music—odd bedfellows, I know—whose score, by Marc Shaiman, doesn’t have a single weak link. 

Adapted from John Waters’ 1998 film, the musical’s a funhouse-mirror look at efforts to end segregation on a Kennedy-era TV teen dance show. Village Theatre’s whole cast is terrific, but two actors demand to be mentioned. One because he has the biggest heels to fill: Nick DeSantis plays Edna, a role in which Divine (in the film) and Harvey Fierstein (in the Seattle/Broadway production) compete in everyone’s memories, but his adroit adorableness owes nothing to either. The other is high-school sophomore Belle Pugh as Little Inez; the size and impact of her voice is anything but, and when she sang her first line, mine couldn’t have been the only jaw that dropped.

As Pauline Kael said of the film, Waters “treats the message movie as a genre to be parodied, just like the teenpic.” The musical adds yet more message, foregrounding the racial conflict—and the one cloud hanging over this production (or any production) is how dishearteningly necessary this message still is. As I thought when I saw the 5th Avenue’s Ragtime last fall: When will we be able to watch plays set a half-century, or even a century, ago without being distracted by how little has changed? When do we move on?

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