When John Waters dropped his 1988 film Hairspray on an unsuspecting America, it was greeted with healthy trepidation. Most Waters films, to that point, had received X-ratings. But the plot of this new offering was surprisingly upstanding: Chubby Tracy Turnblad (a chubby Ricki Lake) is marooned in 1960s Baltimore, Md., where she fights her way onto a local dance show and, in the process, fights to end its racial segregation (PG was the rating).
Perhaps the scariest thing in that film was the presence of Divine, the enormous wrecking ball of a drag queen who had the role of Tracy's nervous, agoraphobic mother. Hairspray wasn't Divine's first collaboration with Waters: It was preceded by Pink Flamingos (1972), in which she famously eats dog feces. And there was Female Trouble (1974), in which Divine's character is actually executed for her poor behaviour.
How startling, then, to discover Waters (and Divine) delivering a morality tale for the ages. Hairspray is a heart-warming triumph of good will.
When it was next made into a sugary musical in 2002 (songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), the cult-followers that loved Waters's raunchy side had their own panic attacks. Would Broadway ruin Hairspray's soul?
They needn't have worried. The multi-Tony winner may be a soft pitch in its current incarnation, but it's also rife with golden numbers like the hilariously pathetic Good Morning Baltimore and the inspiriting Welcome to the 60s. A couple of dozen tight songs - and, in the current production, one house-shaking, hair-raising, civil-rights anthem ( I Know Where I've Been) sung by the truly excellent Alana Hibbert - walk us through Tracy Turnblad's sexual and political awakening.
Jennie Neumann is suitably zealous as Tracy at Vancouver's Stanley Theatre - we get the impression that her pained attraction to teen heartthrob Link (the winking nymph, Adam Charles) is part and parcel of her efforts to bring black dancers onto Baltimore's dance program. Neumann's vocals are a real triumph here; she's got a joyful bell of a voice that's perfectly suited to the part.
But just because all that was working, doesn't mean disaster couldn't fall on this Arts Club production. On May 12, in a preview performance, the 57-year-old stage vet Jay Brazeau - who has the key role of Tracy's mother (Divine's role) - suffered a stroke backstage while changing dresses. Brazeau has missed 36 performances since then, which were covered by Andy Toth. (Divine, that original Mrs. Turnblad, died of an enlarged heart just a week after Hairspray hit movie theatres in 1988.) This Tuesday, though, Brazeau pulled on a new dress and returned to work.
And what a return. Edna Turnblad is the kind of woman who wears plus-size dresses made from floral-print curtains, and Brazeau manages to inject her frumpy life with a fierce determination to do right by her big-dreaming daughter. He's been receiving big laughs and standing ovations all week.
Hairspray is, after all, the story of a brave soul who won't let anyone keep her from getting on stage. It's charming, and apropos, to see Brazeau make such a committed and assured comeback. The production, as a whole, has vim enough to elicit toe-tapping and genuine cheers; it's no revelation (especially for those who've seen either film version), but this is an assured run at a modern favourite.
- Written by Thomas Meehan, Mark O'Donnell, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
- Directed by Bill Millerd
- Starring Jennie Neumann and Jay Brazeau
- At the Stanley Industrial Stage in Vancouver
Hairspray runs in Vancouver until July 10 ( artsclub.com).
Special to The Globe and Mail