A stellar ‘Hairspray’ on tour at the National can’t stop the beat

by Michael Sainte-Andress

This article was first published in DC Theater Arts here.

This Hairspray was the third go-around for me! I saw the show first on Broadway, with R&B star Tevin Campbell as Seaweed, then at Kennedy Center, and last night at the National.

Each time I was thoroughly entertained, and each time it felt fresh and inspiring. So I was trying to come up with a word that truly expresses my affection for this show and it is rousing!

Because of technical difficulties, there was a 30-minute delay before the curtain, which seemed like an eternity. But the wait was well worth it. The energy and exuberance were front and center and remained throughout the show. You would think my familiarity with the show would render it without the surprises one hopes for in musical theater. However, this performance gave tremendous witness to what talent, expertise, imagination, and highly skilled technical production values can do to “an old chestnut.”

Let’s start with the casting: the lead role of Tracy Turnblad, the plump and cruelly maligned teenager who just wants to be on a local TV dance show was portrayed by Faith Northcutt, the understudy. Seeing her it was hard to imagine how much better the original lead, Niki Metcalf, could possibly be. From Northcutt’s initial appearance getting out of bed and singing “Good Morning Baltimore,” she draws you in with her vocal clarity and melodic playfulness (much like you would expect of a 16-year-old). In the script, Tracy’s physicality brings her scorn and criticism from her peers, showing how senseless and cruel body shaming can be. But the vulnerability Northcutt conveys really underlies her true strength of character. Brava!

The second standout performance is the role of Tracy’s mother, Edna, a more mature version of her daughter. This role was originated by the inimitable Harvey Fierstein, and his brilliance designated drag casting for all future productions. Edna is portrayed by Andrew Levitt, a standout of Season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. His comic sensibility and physical adroitness (for a 6-foot-4-inch man in women’s clothes) are a joy to behold, and the interplay between him and Tracy as well as with Edna’s husband, Wilbur (Christopher Swan), is a touching portrait of familial love, support, and understanding. Wow!

Then there is Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee), a proud, middle-aged Black mother who hosts a dance show for Black teenagers but who is also a proud and stalwart crusader for racial equality in her community. She is authoritative, without being domineering, and is a woman who has learned the hard lessons of racial discrimination. She brings it out forcefully in her beautifully rendered “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a song that gives the show a stirring moment of insight and poignance not generally expected in musicals. Kudos!

Finally, this company of performers is all accomplished as singers, dancers, and definitely actors, and their ensemble enactments are a director’s satisfaction and an audience’s joy. The technical support is equally outstanding. The direction of Matt Lenz, the choreography of Michelle Lynch, the costumes by William Ivey Long, the scenic design by David Rockwell, the wigs and hair design by Paul Huntley and Richard Mawbey, the lighting design by Paul Miller, and the sound design by Shannon Slaton are all top-notch and make the telling of this timeless story all the more believable and meaningful.

It all ends with a celebratory, spirited, and jubilant rendition of “You Can’t Stop the Beat!” Yeah, rousing is just the right word for this stellar production.

Running Time: Approximately two hours 30 minutes, including one intermission.

Hairspray plays through May 15, 2022, on tour at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC. Evening performances each day are at 7:30 pm. Matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday, May 14 and 15, are at 2 pm. Tickets (starting at $50) are available online.

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