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When just a little dab won’t do ya’

Chanhassen’s Hairspray offers unique view on race relations and self-discovery

Chanhassen’s Hairspray transports its audience back to the exciting and turbulent decade of the 1960s. When young people met resistance in their efforts to integrate a local dance show, a political demonstration broke out. Each character was forced to decide where they stood. Act One, Too Ltd.

Hairspray. Music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres through January 28, 2012. Dinner and show, $59-79; show only, $47-65. Tickets: 952/934-1525.
I admit to being mystified by women’s hairstyles in the early 1960s. How did those manicured locks stay in place? Clearly, my own youthful cowlicks brought to mind the term hairdon’t more than hairdo.
Then I found out about hairspray, that magic-in-a-can that could keep each strand in place, allowing appearances to be maintained. I confess I didn’t understand why this was so important, but at least I understood the how.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ current mainstage production Hairspray offers a perspective on racial struggles and youth culture during those turbulent years. While dominant culture wanted to keep up appearances and keep people in their place, the energy of rock-and-roll music spoke to people across all sorts of lines and broke down barriers between them.
Chanhassen’s production of this Tony Award-winning Broadway musical captures the intensity of the times, as well as tells the stories of people and families who grew up in that era. It is a lesson worth noting in today’s highly polarized political reality.

Chanhassen takes on social issues through song

The musical Hairspray is based on a 1980 film by John Waters. Set in Baltimore, plump teenager Tracy Turnblad (Therese Walth) has aspirations of appearing on “The Corny Collins Show,” the mythical Baltimore TV dance program that delights area young people.
With dreams of connecting with the show’s teen heartthrob Link Larkin, Tracy traipses down to the TV station and lands a role on the show. Once an “at-risk” student, Tracy becomes an overnight sensation with all the fanfare and power that attends such accolades.
But earlier she had met a number of the African-American students, including Seaweed J. Stubbs, while on detention at school. She couldn’t understand why these young people wouldn’t try out for the show too. Her encouragement and organizing only leads to a political standoff that is exacerbated by the personal conflict between Tracy and her nemesis Amber von Tussle (Nicole Renee Chapman).
Chanhassen’s Hairspray thoroughly entertains while also scratching at our social conscience. All the technical aspects of the show — the set, the fashions, the band — successfully heighten interest in the show’s characters. But the characters also carry their weight.
Therese Walth, playing Tracy, captures the exuberance of youth and the optimism of someone whose world has just expanded exponentially through new relationships. Her voice is well-suited to the demands of this role. Walth offers a solid performance.
Kasono Mwanza captures the essence of Seaweed, another dreamer albeit a little less naivé than Tracy. Mwanza brings a quiet energy to a role that could easily become token, reduced to stereotypes one direction or the other. He not only filled the role, but he filled it out.
Always delightful Jay Albright plays Tracy’s dad, Wilbur. He is the likeable, soft-hearted, working-class dad that every kid wishes for, whose desire to do what’s right makes up for any other shortcomings.
Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mom, is played by David Anthony Brinkley, one of the most talented Twin Cities actors. This role is written to be played by a man. However, Brinkley could have feminized it a bit more, though playing off Albright’s sensitivity allowed the character to be more masculine without being over the top.
Ben Bakken’s Link was convincing as the self-absorbed superstar who learns more about himself than he wants to know.
“Good Morning, Baltimore” and “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now” are real show stoppers. The ensemble’s energy in these tunes could lift even the weakest of lead characters.
Hairspray isn’t heavy social commentary about the 1960s. That’s not its purpose.
Hairspray is a celebration of the fact that the human spirit isn’t limited by its weakest links, but is strengthened by its most noble ones, especially those most unlikely.

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