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Stage Review

‘Hairspray’: It’s got a catchy beat — and a social conscience, too

Brooke Shapiro (left) and Blake Hammond in “Hairspray.”
Brooke Shapiro (left) and Blake Hammond in “Hairspray.”Paul Lyden

BEVERLY — Musicals that deliver a genuinely good time and a blunt social message about racial justice are to be cherished, especially now, when we need both.

“Hairspray’’ belongs in that useful category, a fact driven home by director-choreographer Jeff Whiting’s exuberant, virtually irresistible, and, yes, timely production at North Shore Music Theatre.

Although the overall tone of “Hairspray’’ is of course whimsical, the we-can-defeat-prejudice-if-we-band-together message of its idealistic, unsinkable teenage heroine, Tracy Turnblad (Brooke Shapiro), remains as welcome — and as sadly necessary — as ever. (Recent grim reminders include tragedies in Pittsburgh and Jeffersontown, Ky., that were born of hatred and intolerance, and a midterm campaign ad by the president of the United States that was considered so racist that even Fox News, normally an obedient Trump megaphone, stopped airing it.)


“Hairspray’’ takes place in Baltimore in 1962, a time and place that is puzzled by Tracy’s freewheeling persona and hostile to her civil rights advocacy. She’s not daunted, remaining preternaturally cheerful in the face of long odds. Her initial ambition is to land a spot on a TV dance program featuring local teens called “The Corny Collins Show,’’ though she’s significantly heavier than other members of the cast. Even her housedress-wearing, perpetually ironing mother, Edna, amusingly portrayed by a raspy Blake Hammond, warns her: “They don’t put people like us on television, except to laugh at.’’

But Tracy wins a position in the cast, then promptly elevates the stakes — and “Hairspray’’ itself — by setting out to integrate “The Corny Collins Show.’’ To do that, she and her newfound African-American friends, including a dancer named Seaweed J. Stubbs (Stephen Scott Wormley), will need to figure out a way to outfox the show’s racist producer, Velma Von Tussle (Merrill Peiffer).

The period references in “Hairspray’’ may seem dated (the Gabor sisters, Debbie Reynolds, Nikita Khrushchev), but the musical itself remains strikingly fresh, even after multiple iterations of the story on film and onstage. Originating 30 years ago as a movie written and directed by the inimitable John Waters and starring Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad (with Waters mainstay Divine as Edna Turnblad), “Hairspray’’ was adapted into a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 2002, starring Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad. Then in 2007 came another film version (this time built upon the Broadway musical) starring Nikki Blonsky as Tracy and John Travolta as Edna.


When it comes to Boston-area stagings of “Hairspray,’’ the gold standard remains Wheelock Family Theatre’s sensational 2014 production. But North Shore Music Theatre’s “Hairspray’’ abounds in its own distinct pleasures, from the talented ensemble whirling and kicking across the relatively small NSMT stage to the vibrant playing by an orchestra led by music director Milton Granger to a host of vividly appealing performances in the principal roles.

Shapiro is a bouncy, effervescent Tracy, staking a claim on our affections from the show’s opening moments, when Tracy comes perkily awake in her Baltimore home, ready for the day in her pink sweater, blue pleated skirt, white ankle socks, and blue hair bow. Shapiro leads the ensemble in a terrific, amped-up “Good Morning Baltimore,’’ establishing an energy level that is largely sustained for the rest of the show, including an adroitly staged dream sequence, “I Can Hear the Bells,’’ which features the likable Zane Phillips as teen heartthrob Link Larkin, Tracy’s crush.


The cast is strong across the board, including Philip Hoffman as Tracy’s nerdy but passionate father, Wilbur; Marie Eife as haughty, diva-ish Amber Von Tussle, Velma’s teenage daughter, whose stardom the mother is determined to maintain; and Marty McNamee as an easygoing Corny Collins. But it is the blazing Altamiece Carolyn Cooper whom you will remember. Portraying Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed’s mother and the host of “Negro Day’’ on “The Corny Collins Show,’’ Cooper delivers a stunning performance of the gospel-style ballad “I Know Where I’ve Been.’’ Delineating and embodying the song’s vision of a better day, Cooper takes “Hairspray’’ to a place that is both deeper and higher.

Composer Marc Shaiman, who also cowrote the lyrics with Scott Wittman, dipped into various other musical styles (early 1960s rock ’n’ roll, doo-wop, R&B) to create a score that is rife with delights. One of those delights is the show’s insanely catchy finale. It’s about the power of music, dancing, love, and young people determined to bring about social change: “You Can’t Stop the Beat.’’ Thankfully, you can’t stop “Hairspray,’’ either.


Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Music by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman. Based on the film written and directed by John Waters. Directed and choreographed by Jeff Whiting. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through Nov. 11. Tickets $59-$84, 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin