HSPVA’s Hairspray- wondrous, entertaining, and enlightening!


HSPVA’s Hairspray curtain call, Photo courtesy of HSPVA

HSPVA’s production of Hairspray, exhibited last month, was nothing short of wondrous- the glamorous costumes, phenomenal vocal acrobatics, unembellished but excellently executed choreography, everything- left the audience awestruck and in relentless ripples of standing ovations. Centered on the persistent problems of racial segregation and division based on appearances, this two-hour extravaganza tackled the matter of life “without love” with an astounding soundtrack, soul, and witty banter.

Originally a 1988 film of the same name (directed by John Waters), the storyline of Hairspray has always revolved around a dream to make a television appearance and the tribulations of racial discrimination surrounding such pursuits. Following the popular success of the original flick (rated 7/10 stars on IMDB), theatre producer Margo Lion conceived a stage musical version in 1998 and enhanced its relevance by incorporating contemporary tunes to the Hairspray soundtrack (such as the bouncy, upbeat “River Deep Mountain High” inspiring that parallel in the most iconic song of the score) which, resultantly, simultaneously captured the essence of the African-American community’s funky rhythm and blues and the current 60’s pop dance music. The concept has been additionally transformed into a musical comedy (later appeared on Broadway in 2002 with over 2,600 performances), a book (note: this version of the story was liberally interpreted), and various motion picture adaptations (the latest film (2007) featuring the likes of Queen Latifah, John Travolta, and Zac Efron). Additionally, Hairspray has been translated into 8 languages and has not stopped being reproduced! This just demonstrates the stunningly magnificent way that music, and art as a whole, can transcend any culture, any difference, which exquisitely represents a pristine parallel of how unity can be achieved as soon as differences (or uniqueness, really) are not denounced.

The Corny Collins Show scene, Photo courtesy of HSPVA

Without any further ado, “welcome to the 60’s!” As the story goes, bubbly teenager Tracy Turnblad hops on the opportunity to fill a vacancy as a dancer (also called a “council member”) on Baltimore’s hot Corny Collins Show, her hopes to represent plus-sized wonders like herself, make the Negro Day special everyday, and simply, have fun! Encouraged by her dimwitted yet bright bestie Penny Pingleton and youthfully energetic parents, but onerously opposed by the “old-fashioned” white network officials and accompanying police force, she navigates the twisted television world of segregation and devises to use her overnight celebrity status to fully integrate the family-friendly (and occasionally flirtatious) dancing spectacular. The piece conveys the extremely relevant and resonant message that there will always be unresolved troubles in our lives, but “little” victorious resolutions like these are how we will transform our world into a more peaceful, united, and harmonious place.

Jittery spectators exhilaratingly trickling into the reduced-capacity Denny Theatre, located smack dab in the center of HSPVA’s fresh new Downtown campus, accompanied by the lively air of the best musicians in Houston energetically tuning their instruments and warming up all higgledy-piggledy in the pit (and the occasional costume sneak-peek by actors taking shortcuts backstage did not hurt at all either)– it was overwhelming in the most delightful way. After the inconveniencing settlement of the intense COVID-19 circumstances, reliving the experience of a live performance was truly mesmerizing, entrancing even. ‘PVA’s production was professionally presented, meticulous to details as precise as preceding the show with etiquette reminders and the dimming of the lights that smoothly and subtly signified the start of the spectacle. The cast’s performances evoked everything from euphoria to gloomy woe and proved to be unequivocally outta sight! And as a previously involved theater student, I can assure that these high schoolers stepped up to the plate and delivered.

The tech behind-the-scenes, Photo courtesy of HSPVA

One could instantly note their unquantifiable dedication to their first show of the 2021 school year in, firstly, the seamless set strikes (the rearranging of the backdrops) and transitions that allowed for the assortment of settings to logically occur side-by-side, and the dynamic (corresponding with the accented beats of the songs) lighting providing the sets with bountiful energies. And the set design itself displayed such authenticity to the 60’s with the vivid pastel shades, the smooth concoction of wavy and clean lines, and the way the graphics (sometimes quite literally) popped off the walls. The picturesque construction effectively conveyed the liveliness and thematic interconnectedness in a non-verbal way, an indispensable ingredient to this show’s splendor.

The set designing, Photo courtesy of HSPVA
Hairspray dance rehearsal, Photo courtesy of HSPVA

The playful and effortless elevated-drill-team dancing further engaged the audience to jive alongside the cast and crew. My body was unintentionally bouncing for the entire two plus hours, and the audience member next to me was abducted by this recurring urge to dramatically stomp her feet, clap her hands, and shriek any time anything related to her daughter happened- these were the mild reactions of the night. Moreover, the solos and ensemble pieces were equally as exhilarating, and while not perfectly performed at every second, the actors’ tenacity shined through the dances and added even more enthusiasm to their peppy production of Hairspray.

The costume fabrication, Photo courtesy of HSPVA

The alluring, well-designed, and well-executed vintage hair and fashion kept making me do double-takes. The ladies’ vision-inhibiting ten-foot teased ‘dos and cinched yet capacious garments, complimented by the lads’ slick solid-colored suits and accompanied by the ubiquitous playful polka dot pattern, flooded ‘PVA’s Denny Theatre with splashes of contrast and beaming vintage tints. The costume designers did excellent and excellently arduous work, taking regular trips to thrift stores and craft retailers alike to complete this mighty undertaking. Their diligence and attention to authenticity- quintessence.

Hairspray vocal rehearsal, Photo courtesy of HSPVA

Furthermore, the tastily crispy, hit-filled, unique, no-song-without-a-key-change setlist (unexaggerated) was such an integral part of the play’s immense impact. From the cheerful opening “Good Morning Baltimore” and the whimsical “(It’s) Hairspray” to the anthemic “You Can’t Stop The Beat” and the underrated, heart-wrenching “I Know Where I’ve Been,” HSPVA’s esteemed and prodigious instrumentalists showered this show with extremely moving, yet subtle, musical dexterity and pure talent. Now, don’t even get me started on the singers– their control, the ability to switch between registers (such as from a more powerful “chest voice” to a lighter falsetto), was as adept as that of professionals. And although the microphone levels were not moderated during the songs, which made for some slightly disturbing disparities in volume, the music as a whole, dare I say, was ultimately the best part of the entire play.

Hairspray run-through, Photo courtesy of HSPVA

Finally, the acting- the definitive make-or-break element of theater. The performers were so candid and natural that for a good portion of the show, I practically forgot that I was attending a performance, not just people-watching. An actor’s job is to live realistically under given circumstances, and these PVA wonders did just that. Incorporating their own flairs in the intentional body placements and their personalities in the delivery of the lines just made the performance that much more realistic, palatable, and enjoyable. Altogether, these constituents- the set, cosmetics, dancing, and music- left me with about a whole week’s stash of energy and a brighter view of how we can better our world through the influential and electrifying essence of union, integration, and harmony.

Succeeding booms of applause nearly blasted my eardrums out, but I did not even care because I, myself, was one of the wacky and extravagantly loud applauders. At the same time, I was nearly brought to tears because the show elicited discriminatory memories from my past; being treated in a snarky, flat-out rude manner and also silently differentiated fractured my elementary school heart. One never realizes the impact of insensitive comments and exclusively being greeted by names that are not the most benevolent, such as “too-smart Asian kid” and “moldy yellow girl.” Despicable behavior such as this shattered a sizable hunk of my self-esteem, and unfortunately, I cannot say that I ever fully recovered from that obliteration. I would never wish any resemblance of this conduct on any human on God’s green Earth. But back to our regularly scheduled programming- I was brought to my feet because of the extraordinary resolve of gradual egality and people dancing together as humans, not skin colors, not sizes, as humans. The way that this show reflects the reality of happenings such as the Civil Rights Act of 1960 in the facet that freedom was technically declared but not yet implemented nor seen in the behaviors of the general population was poignant, alarming, harrowing. In addition, Hairspray has such a prevalence in this time as related to the Black Lives Matter movement, in which the fight for freedom for African Americans, remains unresolved, incomplete. The show alludes to how imperative the journey to justice is and illustrates a marvelous representation of how life could be (through the victorious conclusion of the white Corny Collins Show dancers and the black underground dance scene cats moving colorfully together in carefree harmony) if the world were to only let go of useless categorization and compartmentalization of people for the color of their skin, for anything.

The dress rehearsal, Photo courtesy of HSPVA

HSPVA delivered such a prominent and indispensable message- what a heartwarming sight on that breezy autumn night. My final thoughts? This show has proved itself to be the “ladies’ choice” and “timeless to me,” never failing to instill that it starts with one bold heart, then “it takes two” (the more, the merrier) to mold impactful, lasting legacies and ameliorations, furtherance of equality, justice, and peace. Now, we have “come so far but still got so far to go,” but it is moments, movements, productions like these that educate generations and instigate improvement. I would therefore rate HSPVA’s rendition of Hairspray a 9.9/10. I am a passionate advocate of theirs now and fervently implore that you attend their next show. You may very well learn something new, meet someone new, attain something invaluable- who knows! The tickets are affordable (this show’s admission averaged $20 per person), especially for the exceptional quality, and plus, supporting your local art scene should be a moral obligation (think about how life would be without wall art, movie theaters, museums, how drab!).  There are grand gains waiting to be grasped- now go, “run and tell that!” Go, be part of shaping history and the future!

Hairspray’s triumphant finale shot, Photo courtesy of HSPVA