'Hairspray' at Wharton is an unstoppable juggernaut


On opening night (Nov. 28) of “Hairspray’s” six-day run at the Wharton Center, there was an unusually long wait before the house doors opened. During the musical’s first half, the production stopped twice while the actors were cleared from the stage and some rigging issues were fixed.

But just like “Hairspray’s” signature song, you can’t stop the beat. And with an extraordinary 34-person cast of actors who all demonstrate their own flash, this tour of “Hairspray” is an unstoppable juggernaut.

Having such a diverse cast of actors who are able to show off their own qualities is part of what makes the musical —which continues at Wharton through Sunday (Dec. 3) — so appealing. A range of body shapes, genders, skin tones and personalities fill the stage, and each actor exhibits limitless energy and vocal power.

When the majority of the cast fills the stage with acrobatic dances and choir-like harmonies, it’s clear why the musical hasn’t stopped pleasing audiences since it opened on Broadway in 2002.

Accepting different types of people and promoting desegregation is what “Hairspray” is all about, and the distinct casting — and distinct costumes — helps send the message that love and talent are more important than size, gender or race.

Authentic attire from the ‘60s, like patent-leather or saddle shoes, dress pants and past-the-knee skirts, adds to the charm of the musical, set in Baltimore in 1962. Extreme beehive and duck-back hairdos seal the deal. Period props like a light blue Fender Telecaster guitar, Kodak flash cameras and a coil-cord phone add a realistic nostalgia.

Those who were alive in the early ‘60s will appreciate references to three-channel TVs, cooties and McCall’s dress patterns. Younger viewers might miss the humor of references to celebrities like Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher, Jackie Gleason and Liberace, but everyone can appreciate the glorious, multicolored sets; clever, ever-changing backdrops; and spectacular walls of lighting. 

Most of “Hairspray’s” showstoppers happen in the second act of the about 2-and-a-half-hour show. When Greg Kalafatas as Edna Turnblad and Ralph Prentice Daniel as Wilbur Turnblad sang “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” the intense roars of approval from the audience made it seem like the maybe three-fourths-filled Cobb Great Hall actually had an overflow crowd.

In the role of Motormouth Maybelle, Deidre Lang’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” sent goosebumps rippling through the audience. Like many in the cast, she was rewarded with vociferous ovations at the end of the show, following the rousing “You Can’t Stop the Beat” finale.

Caroline Eiseman as Tracy Turnblad deserves the highest praise. She is rarely absent from the stage, has most of the leads in the musical numbers and has to master almost continuous cardio workouts masked as wild dance moves. Even though Eiseman hasn’t held the role full-time for long, she commands the part and seems meant to play it. Much like her character, who won’t be stopped from achieving her dreams of fame.


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