There’s an old adage that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Maybe you’ve heard of it? While that theory might have been popularized in Mary Poppins, few musicals excel at serving important life lessons wrapped up in a peppy package quite like Hairspray, currently onstage at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre through January 28.
The inspiring tale of Baltimore’s favorite daughter, Tracy Turnblad, and her quest to both dance on live television and spearhead a fight for racial integration first came to life in the 1988 film of the same name by John Waters. In 2002, Tracy got the Broadway treatment with a new musical adaptation featuring music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
While the Maltz long ago earned its stripes as a stellar producer of large-scale musicals, it truly hits it out of the park with Hairspray. Between the eye-candy sets, the captivatingly thoughtful choreography, the powerhouse vocals, the hilarious performances, the on-the-money live orchestra, and the outstanding wigs—my god, the wigs!—it’s safe to say Hairspray is one of the theater’s greatest productions to date.
What is Hairspray without Tracy? The magnificent Mary DiGangi makes her Maltz debut as the vivacious teen, but she’s no stranger to the role, having previously played Tracy twice before with other companies. Her mastery is apparent from the second the curtain rises and she pops awake ready to greet the day and serenade the city she so adores (“Good Morning Baltimore”). Whether she’s belting out empowering odes (“Welcome to the ’60s”), crooning to heartthrob Link Larkin (“I Can Hear the Bells”) or simply stealing a scene with subtly chucklesome facial expressions and pantomimes, DiGangi rises to the occasion and becomes an anchor for her equally talented cast mates.
There really are far too many standouts to reference in one review. Altamiece Carolyn Cooper brings down the house as Motormouth Maybelle; her rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” earns uproarious applause and more than a few tears. South Florida–based actress Mia Matthews lends sardonic substance to the villainous Velma Von Tussle, channeling the theatricality and allure of The Little Mermaid’s Ursula in her many reminiscences of her time as Miss Baltimore Crabs. Austin Holmes’ Seaweed Stubbs delivers smooth moves while simultaneously capturing the charisma—and good looks—of a young Barack Obama. And Taylor Quick proves that the role of Tracy’s sidekick, Penny Pingleton, can be just as fun, deep, challenging, and hilarious as the lead herself.
Of course, where there is a Tracy there is her mother, Edna Turnblad. Since drag legend Divine originated the character in the film and Harvey Fierstein took over for the original musical, the part has always belonged to a man. Film and TV regular Michael Kostroff (perhaps best known for his seasons-long stint on the HBO series The Wire) fills Divine and Fierstein’s shoes like Cinderella takes to a glass slipper. And much like that Disney character, Edna goes through a transformation from a professional clothes washer to a confident modern woman. Simply put, Kostroff is exquisite. He’s at once vulnerable yet vocal, broad yet nuanced, sweet yet acerbic. And he’s at his best when playing opposite Philip Hoffman, who portrays Edna’s wacky hubby, Wilbur. “You’re Timeless to Me” is the sentimental love song couples will find themselves singing to one another for days to come.
Speaking of earworms, um, hello? “You Can’t Stop the Beat” anyone? While the Tony Award–winning melodies speak for themselves, choreographer David Wanstreet does an excellent job of both invoking the moves of the era while also using unexpected, theatrically-infused movements to tell the narratives described in the songs. No number exemplifies this quite like “I Can Hear the Bells,” which sees Tracy imagine her theoretical relationship with Link Larkin (the perfectly cast Zane Phillips) from first kiss to last breath.
This being Hairspray, one cannot overlook the hair—and there is a lot! Wig designer Gerard Kelly created 85 hairpieces for the show, many of which are larger-than-life monoliths that deserve a cast credit all their own. The fact that these actors can wear these things is impressive enough, let alone dance in them!
Regardless of whether you attend Hairspray for the hair, costumes, acting, dancing, singing, sets, or its themes of love and acceptance, the most important part is that you see it. And this production by the Maltz Jupiter Theatre is without a doubt the Hairspray to see.