May 4, 2012

At the Westchester Broadway Theatre is a gas.  Originally a 1988 film by John Waters, the 2002 Broadway production won 8 Tony Awards.

The story:  chubby girl competes with Miss Perfect for a spot on a TV show.  You can guess what happens in this predictable yarn. 

But it is not the story, particularly, which makes this play work.  In post-performance interviews the actors described their experience as a party to which they are happy to welcome the audience.  That attitude can make a bad play, which this is not, work.  It also speaks to the artistry of Director Richard Stafford who also choreographed, beautiful to watch, expertly crafted to use the WBT’s considerable stage size.

The acting was quite good all around;  standout for me was Scott Calcagno who plays multiple roles:  high school principal, Mr. Pinky and Harriman Spritzer.  But it was his creation of the principal that was the standout.  Well worth seeing.

It is the message of the play which is the star after all the singing and dancing and drama.  The message, very current in 1962, the year in which it is set, is integration, equal opportunity and social acceptance.  Hairspray delivers this message with humor and compassion, and that is what makes it classic.  The device of a male actor in drag (Tad Wilson) as chubby Tracy’s mother, a role played by Harvey Fierstein, Divine and – get ready – John Travolta in the past is campy and funny, but again, it is the message.  Some off-color jokes, but don’t hesitate to bring the young ‘uns.  They won’t get them.

People under forty, maybe even fifty, will miss some of the references:  Jackie Gleason, Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Teen Angel;  I guess there is still Midol and Geritol but these seem dated references as well.

An interesting note about education:  all the special ed students were either black or chubby.  That can’t be accidental.  Rather it  is further social commentary about the biases in our education system.

So if a quasi-holiday called Negro Day, doesn’t bother you, then you should have a good time.  We have come a long way, but America still deals with race and girth bias.  In 1962 there were three TV channels.  Now there are probably 3,000.  Perhaps we are ready to leave such foolishness behind.

If you like musicals, definitely come to the WBT in Elmsford.  Production ends on June 3, so don’t drag your feet.  WBT’s new policy is to have more productions and fewer performances of each.