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Big Hair, Big Fun and Big Heart

Look out Toronto—the ’60s are back: beehive hairdos, bright gumball colours and a world in-step with the most boppin’ music and moves of the day.

In Hairspray, it’s 1962—the ’50s have passed and change is in the air. Baltimore’s Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, has only one passion—to dance. She wins a spot on the local TV dance program, “The Corny Collins Show,” and overnight, is transformed from outsider to teen celebrity.

In this simple tale of teen angst, young love and the pursuit of fame, a greater story of equality and integration is brought to the stage. Turnblad is an unlikely heroine, but an inspiring one all the same.

When Hairspray opened on Broadway in August 2002, it was an instant smash, earning rave reviews from critics and winning an impressive eight Tony awards, including Best Musical. Following the instant success of Hairspray, theatre buffs claimed it to be another vital sign, on the heels of The Producers and The Full Monty, that musical comedy is back in vogue.

Much like The Producers, Hairspray succeeds in recreating the pleasures of the old-fashioned musical comedy without seeming outdated. (One New York Times writer went as far as calling it a “post-postmodern musical.”)

By incorporating elements of satire, kitsch and camp—and leaving out the “long customary edges of jadedness and condescension”—Hairspray dazzles its audience for the entire performance and touches hearts long after the lights go up.

It appears that dazzle can travel as well. Since the musical (which is based on the 1988 cult film of the same name), premiered its Toronto production last month, the Princess of Wales Theatre has been packed every night with an energetic crowd keen to swing back to the ’60s.

On “The Corny Collins Show” (a Baltimore version of American Bandstand) where new dances are introduced, the affable Corny runs a “Miss Teenage Hairspray” contest, and the anxious-to-please kids smile big and show off their upright hairdos.

When the overweight, working-class Tracy reaches her goal of becoming a star on the show, she sets her ample ambition toward winning the admiration of heartthrob Link Larkin and outdoing the show’s reigning princess, Amber Von Tussle. But she doesn’t stop there. The self-assured Tracy rises above the taunts of her high school classmates like a true ’60s dreamer: blind to the limits society imposes on outcasts like her and the black students she befriends, Tracy works to integrate the Corny Collin’s show, changing her world along the way.

Vanessa Olivarez, who plays the lead role in the Toronto production, experienced a similar big TV break when she became a Top 12 finalist on last season’s American Idol. Before facing the program’s notoriously tough judges, the 22-year-old Olivarez was living in Atlanta, working as a hair colourist by day and singer-songwriter by night. The energetic starlet auditioned for Idol on a whim, and, despite losing the competition, won wide recognition for her impressive pipes.

When scouting around for a lead in the local production, Hairspray producers were immediately smitten with the bright-eyed Olivarez, thanks to her big voice and even bigger personality.

“I was so happy to get the part in Toronto,” she squeals. “This show screams fabulousness!” That same youthful optimism jumps out of the show itself, with an enthusiastic young cast ready to twist and shout all night long. “We have a phenomenal cast with a lot of great chemistry,” she says. “I think it really shows onstage.”

In its review of the Broadway production, the New York Times was practically gushing: “The personal becomes the political, and the political becomes the fabulous. The best pop Broadway score—part Motown, part Merman—since pop and Broadway parted company some 30 years ago.”

The show’s boppy, catchy tunes were penned by “human jukebox” Marc Shaiman (who was also co-writer of the irreverent, yet catchy songs from the South Park movie, including “Blame Canada”) together with Scott Wittman. Neither had written a Broadway musical before, but when producer Margo Lion heard Shaiman’s music for the South Park film she immediately offered him the composer credit. The musical mavens are now working on the soundtrack for a movie version of the show.

The sets and costumes also place the audience in deepest, gaudiest teen America, circa 1962—described by the New Yorker as that “distant but much memorialized era between Elvis’s early triumphs and the emergence of the Beatles, the period of doo-wop, tail fins and candy colours.”

Offering catchy (often addictive) melodies, dramatic dance numbers and a rainbow feast for the eyes, Hairspray promises a nonstop, sugar-laced journey back to a swinging era of fun—where it’s always a good hair day.

For ticket information call 416-871-1212, or go to www.mirvish.com.—Susan Murray

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