It was too loud.
That was, I'm afraid, my prevailing impression of Hairspray. It was so loud that periodically I stuck my fingers in my ears. So loud that when a performer began one of those songs that starts low and intense, I found myself cowering in anticipation of the inevitable build. So loud that by intermission I was longing for the evening to be over, and the next morning my ears still felt overstimulated. The soprano voices pierced like needles. The group numbers felt like an assault. The bass seemed to be hammering against my breastbone.
And it was a shame, because Hairspray is a terrific show. As you probably know by now, it's about Tracy Turnblad (Carly Jibson), a rotund little teenager in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of dancing on local television on The Corny Collins Show. Despite the jeers of slender contestants, she puffs up her bouffant hairdo, struts into the studio and manages to do just that. She also wins the love of teen heartthrob and Elvis wannabe Link Larkin (Austin Miller). In support of her theory that the teen dance world should be all-inclusive, with every day "Negro day," Tracy bridges the gap between the bubblegum '50s and the awakening '60s by integrating the show with the help of wise, humorous, indefatigable -- and indefatigably rhyming -- Motormouth Maybelle (Charlotte Crossley).
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through April 11, Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
Hairspray is knowing and ironic, but it also has a heart of the sweetest, purest marshmallow. It's consistently on the side of the underdog and the outsider. The subplot concerns Edna, Tracy's mother, who's even larger than her daughter. A depressed hausfrau, she takes in laundry for a living and dreams of a career in outsized-dress design. Harvey Fierstein won a Tony for the role in New York; it's knowingly played in Denver by Bruce Vilanch. Tracy's father is a tiredly humorous little sparrow of a man, physically dwarfed by his wife. And Tracy has a confidante, Penny (Sandra Denise), another school outcast, who's far less savvy and sure of herself than her friend.
There's a cartoon-like brightness to the entire production. David Rockwell's sets are eye-pleasing and clever, as is Kenneth Posner's cheery lighting. The costumes, by William Ivey Long -- who also created costumes for The Producers -- are designed for dance and very witty, right down to the stripes on Tracy's prison-issue shoes. The wigs and hairdos, courtesy of Paul Huntley, do the show's title ample justice. But best of all are the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman: There's the bounciness of "Good Morning Baltimore"; the novelty song "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now"; the dopey, delightful "I Can Hear the Bells"; and Motormouth's sassy encomium to herself, "Big, Blonde and Beautiful," her bluesy "I Know Where I've Been," and the infectiously pulsating "You Can't Stop the Beat." Many songs in contemporary musicals are filled with allusions to well-known scores because the composers have no discernable style of their own, but Shaiman and lyricist Wittman take the sounds of the era, set them spinning and make them fresh.
Nineteen-year-old Carly Jibson is a tiny, roly-poly girl with a huge and delightful voice. As Tracy, she's jumpy and jiggly, constantly in motion. Sometimes I wished she'd slow down a bit, and when she does -- for a few seconds in the act-two prison scene -- she's really quite touching, while still very funny. Vilanch is an inspired mugger: Some of his long, long takes and exaggerated expressions bring down the house. In the far less showy role of Edna's husband, Todd Susman more than holds his own. In fact, he's one of the best things on stage. He gives Wilbur not depth, exactly, but real warmth and feeling. When Susman and Vilanch sing their love song, "Timeless to Me," you want it to go on and on. And it pretty much does, with some funny localized ad libs thrown in, including a well-deserved jab at Marilyn Musgrave.
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As Lark Lincoln, Miller gives a sympathetic reading of a sympathetic role. He's extraordinarily light on his feet, and it's a tribute both to the performers and to the choreography of Jerry Mitchell (which is crisp and snappy throughout) that his suppleness and grace somehow complement Jibson's artless, puppy-like energy. These actors work beautifully together, and they make each other look good. There are many splendid voices here, Miller's being one of them. Terron Brooks, who plays Seaweed, has a great baritone and a joyous way of dancing. Crossley is gorgeous as Motormouth, a nurturing presence with a hell of a way of putting across a song. The smirky, preening Corny Collins is a standard figure -- though here he does have his heart in the right place -- but he anchors much of the proceedings, and Troy Britton Johnson plays him well.
There's a fine line to walk, given the nature of this production, but I did think some of the acting was distractingly broad and hammy. Joanna Glushak was over the top in several of her roles, though she did have some amusing moments as the prison guard. Also exaggerated were Sandra Denise as Penny and Susan Cella as the vindictive Velma Von Tussle. Jordan Ballard was fine as scheming Amber, and I think she's an excellent singer, but I dreaded her numbers, as well as Denise's, because their high notes were among the evening's most physically painful experiences.
Which gets me back to the original complaint. Hairspray is supposed to be a loud show, but the sound distortions did an injustice to the singing and rendered most of the lyrics incomprehensible. I'm not into pleasure-pain, but I imagine the exquisite push-pull between these two sensations is better explored via leather paraphernalia than musical theater.