“Perfection” is a word one always hesitates to use when writing in a critical context, even when one has used it before to describe a particular element of a production — a casting choice, or a design choice — if not of the production as a whole. Yet no other word seems appropriately suited to describe Theatre Aquarius’ current presentation of Hairspray, the beloved musical adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 cult hit film. Everything about it, across the board, is absolute theatrical perfection.
Where to even begin? Perhaps with the first character we see, young Tracy Turnblad waking from a long night’s rest to bid “Good Morning, Baltimore.” From the instant she opens her eyes and starts singing, Saphire Demitro is immediately endearing as the play’s heroine, her singing voice powerful and expressive, her smiles infectious and sincere. We share in every moment of Tracy’s fangirlish elation at meeting heartthrob Link Larkin (a boyishly goofy Aaron Hastelow), in her confusion at the meanness of some of her teenage idols, in her loneliness yet hopeful optimism as she waits in a prison cell. Demitro plays it big and broad, but not outlandishly so: every moment is 100% sincere, and every interaction with her castmates rings with pure emotional honesty.
In truth, the same applies to the whole cast. Under Mary Francis Moore’s stellar direction, each performer plays their character to the most extreme edge of their assigned type, and yet rather than rendering them into cartoonish caricatures, this decision reveals the characters more fully as realized human beings. Everyone is stellar, from Monique Lund’s delightfully serpentine Edna Von Tussle, to Jeremy Carver–James’ magnetically charming and amazingly athletic Seaweed, to Jade Repeta as Tracy’s adorably awkward yet hilarious and scene-stealing best friend Penny.
Interestingly, Tracy’s mother Edna, the drag role made famous by the legendary Harvey Fierstein, the one role that could easily be played in the broadest and most extravagant manner possible, is instead the softest and most subdued of the bunch — to the betterment of the show as a whole. Patrick Brown’s Edna is quieter, more grounded than the rest, her speech much more precise, her mannerisms more introverted, which makes her own assorted moments of expression — her various sarcastic barbs, her fearful embarrassment at the possibility of mockery, her lovingly honest rapport with husband Wilbur (an amusingly hammy Larry Mannell), her maternally protective threats — resonate all the more powerfully. The character fears being mocked, but Brown’s performance invites only empathy and love.
All of this isn’t even touching on their renderings of the songs, which demonstrates an astonishingly wide vocal range on all parts. The girls growl with gusto, the boys hit their brief falsettoes flawlessly, and every moment of complex vocal harmony is near pitch–perfect. Accompanied by the ample but not overpowering support of the band, led by music director Reza Jacobs, fan–favourites like “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” and “Welcome to the ‘60s” sound superb. And then there’s “I Know Where I’ve Been”, the quietly powerful anthem performed by Keisha T Fraser’s magnificent Motormouth Maybelle, an absolute showstopper that practically dares the audience to breathe before it’s finished.
In addition to great singers, the ensemble are also versatile and energetic dancers, with each elaborate dance number making full use of the stage and set, and each one a work of clockwork precision care of choreographer Robin Calvert. Nearly every cast member gets involved, their arms flailing, legs kicking, sometimes spinning around each other, yet no one ever gets in anyone else’s way, and each still allows for every actor’s unique physicality to be incorporated. (One of the many reasons Repeta’s Penny is a scene-stealer? When she dances, she’s always just slightly out of sync and it’s glorious.)
The dances aren’t the only visual treat either. The ever–fluid set and vibrantly varied costumes, courtesy of Patrick Clark and the Maine State Music Theatre, are a veritable smorgasbord of colour and glitter and sequins, enhanced by the gorgeous lighting of Gail Ksionzyk. Yet even the loudest and most outrageous of outfits never looks garish or unbecoming — everyone in the cast looks their best in whatever they wear, down to Edna’s simplest floral dress.
All of these words still fail to do justice to the absolute perfection that is Aquarius’ Hairspray. Like its heroine, it’s an absolute delight from start to finish. The dancers may tire (though they show no signs of it), but audiences won’t. A theatrical experience not to be missed under any circumstances.”V
Written by: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan (book), Marc Shaiman (music/lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics)
Directed by: Mary Francis Moore
Playing at: Theatre Aquarius (Dofasco Centre for the Performing Arts, 190 King William St, Hamilton)
Showtimes: Tuesdays through Sundays until December 24 @ 7:30pm (1pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday)
Box Office: 905-529-7529, or online at theatreaquarius.org