Review: OSF’s ‘Hairspray’

‘HAIRSPRAY: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL’
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Rating (out of 5): 
★★★★

THEATER (Hairspray)

‘HAIRSPRAY’: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL – Tracy Turnblad (Katy Geraghty, front left) takes the stage. Photo by Jenny Graham.

It’s easy to roll one’s eyes when a Shakespeare-based theater festival programs a popular musical, dismissing the choice as no more than as a lazy, desperate cash-grab.

And truth be told, some companies would be guilty as charged.

But even the most cynical of critics would have a hard time making such a claim of OSF’s musical productions over the last decade. Though some of the choices have, at first glance, appeared to be picked from a list of the world’s most beloved and simple-to-market shows, it’s what OSF has done with these titles that suggests, in most cases, that there is more behind the selection of each musical than just its popularity. Look no further than last year, when OSF presented Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” with the notable alteration of the two main love stories having been altered to be same-sex couples. A few years before that, the company gave us a “My Fair Lady” in which the story was stripped of its most problematic elements, tackling head on its own inherent sexism, resulting in a production that was at once visually remarkable and also stirringly anti-chauvinist.

Which brings us to “Hairspray,” a bouncy, frothy, high-energy celebration of diversity and freedom based on the 1988 movie by John Waters. The Tony-winning musical adaptation – about an outsider girl from Baltimore whoworks to integrate a 1960s television dance show — was already seemingly tailor-made for OSF. But under the direction of Christopher Liam Moore, the inherent inclusivity of the story is pushed to new levels, with the addition of cast-members who broaden the definition of diversity to include categories beyond race or gender or sexual orientation.

Taking place in 1962, the story follows Tracy Turnblad (Katy Geraghty), a Baltimore teenager who lives to dance and dreams of becoming a regular on the teen-themed afternoon dance program The Corny Collins Show. This despite the fact that her body type does not match the overtly thin-is-in mandates of the show’s image-obsessed producer, Velma Von Tussle (Kate Mulligan), and that her happily hefty mom, Edna (Daniel T. Parker), forbids her daughter from auditioning. The bulk of the story follows what happens after Tracy charms her way onto the show anyway, falls for its resident heartthrob, Link (Jonathan Luke Stevens), and sets her sights on integrating the show with some of Baltimore’s talented black teens.

With a stunning set design by the Bay Area’s Nina Ball – featuring a rotating central edifice that evolves and changes with every turn – and a pitch-perfect orchestra under the leadership of pianist-conductor Matt Goodrich – this “Hairspray” is endlessly entertaining, deliriously fast-paced and tuneful, and if it sometimes feels a bit surface-y and dramatically glib, it’s a small price to pay for what is otherwise a big, bright, bouncy ball of happiness and joy.

(‘Hairspray’ runs through October 27 in the Angus Bowmer Theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, in Ashland. For information on show dates and times, and the full OSF Schedule, visit OSFAshland.org).

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