You can’t stop the cast of ‘Hairspray’ from shining

MILWAUKEE — Can you hear those bells? It’s “Hairspray” playing in Milwaukee this week at the Marcus Performing Arts Center.

The Tony award-winning musical comedy follows 16-year-old Tracy Turnblad (Niki Metcalf), as she gets up every day to eat breakfast and change the world.

Navigating 1960s Baltimore as a teenager is hard enough. Top that off with being plus-sized with dreams of dancing, mean girls and their mothers, and, of course, fighting for integration, and you can see why Tracy has a lot on her plate. Oh, and she’s falling in love.

If I wrote this review song by song, I’d have a near novella by the end of it. Trust me when I say, this is a must-see production if you can make it.

“Good Morning, Baltimore” – Niki Metcalf as “Tracy Turnblad” in Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Here are four major takeaways from the opening night of “Hairspray”:

Leads are perfectly cast

Metcalf had me hooked from the very first note of “Good Morning, Baltimore.” Dare I say, her iconic opening number topped the original “Hairspray” cast recording. I have never seen a lead start off so strong. And she had the stamina to carry Tracy’s spunk and stunning vocals all the way to curtain.

Metcalf set the tone for the show on Tuesday night, and the ensemble was able to match that energy immediately with “Nicest Kids in Town,” where we’re first introduced to “Hairspray’s” villains: The Von Tussles.

Metcalf makes for the perfect Tracy, and I am so glad I got to see her excel on stage in her dream role.

Andrew Levitt, also known as drag queen Nina West, plays Tracy’s mother, Edna. Drag fans probably know Levitt from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” and he certainly does not disappoint. Levitt kept fans cackling all night long, but still managed to exude all of the emotion Edna has bottled up inside unironically. Edna’s husband, Wilbur (Ralph Prentice Daniel) lets her have the limelight in their duet “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” but doesn’t shrink himself to do so, a mistake so many supporting cast members make. The pair plaid off one another perfectly, foiling when they needed to and blending when the moment was right.

Nick Cortazzo portrays a swoon-worthy Link Larkin with a fantastic character arch. Amber (Ryahn Evers) and Velma Von Tussle (Addison Garner) are the iconic love-to-hate villains I hoped they would be. Emery Henderson gives a geeky Penny who surprises everyone at the end in the absolute best way with a stunning solo moment in “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

When Seaweed Stubbs (Charlie Bryant III) finally took his first step on stage, he lit up an already vibrant set. His energy, fluid dancing, poise and passion seep through every aspect of the show. Bryant’s rendition of “Run and Tell That” is an absolute showstopper. 

“Run and Tell That” – Charlie Bryant III as “Seaweed J. Stubbs” and Company in Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Of course, Motormouth Maybelle’s (Sandie Lee) entrance is one that cannot be missed. Lee commands the stage with grace and strength. The former “American Idol” contestant has a stunning, jaw-dropping voice that still has me wondering how she didn’t win her season. But perhaps that’s for the best, because Lee makes an exquisitely insightful, inspiration, elegant Motormouth Maybelle. Her performance alone is one not to be missed. Her first song “Big Blonde & Beautiful” was so gorgeous nearly had me in tears.

Little Inez (Joi D. McCoy) strikes a great emotional balance of youthful joy and perseverance coupled with frustration to create an all too relatable character. The Dynamites (Sydney Acrhibald, Melanie Puente Ervin and Jade Turner) are a powerhouse trio with vibrant vocals.

Music is nearly flawless

Let’s talk music.

“Big, Blonde and Beautiful” – Sandie Lee as “Motormouth Maybelle” in Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

This entire show had me wanting to dance and sing along (which the cast, to my delight, encouraged at curtain call). Everyone has top-notch vocals, the accompaniment was spot on and the classics everyone loves from “Hairspray” are sure to please. Of course, if you’ve only seen “Hairspray” on the screen, you’ll notice the movie version swaps a few songs, but you’ll be in for a treat with live show-exclusives.

Songs that demand high energy (“You Can’t Stop the Beat,” “Good Morning Baltimore,” “The Nicest Kids in Town,” “Cooties”) brought just that. Albeit, the beginning of “You Can’t Stop the Beat” had a few brief audio issues in the first verse, but they were quickly remedied and easily forgotten.

Set sucked me in

I’ll be clear: The set (David Rockwell) is beautiful.

“Welcome to the 60s” – (from L) Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West) as “Edna Turnblad,” Niki Metcalf as “Tracy Turnblad” and Company in Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

From the stand-up bedroom in the prologue, to the detailed headlights in the television studio, to the subtle hints of confinement when Edna reflects on her life, to the bold colors and 60s style patterns, it’s clear that Rockwell left no inch untouched.

The performers are great but the set takes this show to the next level, bringing everything to life.

The message is one we all need to hear, even today

“Hairspray” is a feel-good, uplifting musical, but underneath the flashy dance numbers and over the top wigs (which were fabulous and period-specific, by the way thanks to Paul Huntley and Bernie Ardia), there’s a much bigger takeaway at play.

(from L) Jade Turner, Melanie Puente Ervin and Sydney Archibald as “The Dynamites” in Hairspray. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Without being preachy, “Hairspray” asks all of us to lead with love and an open mind. That applies everywhere. When we look at ourselves, we must work to accept who we are with compassion. The same goes for our friends and family as we work to support. And ultimately, we must listen to marginalized communities who are sometimes stiffled when they try to speak up, working to be active allies. Differences are not bad — as cliche as it sounds, they’re what make the world beautiful — and change does not have to be scary. Change, certainly, can be hard, but it’s still worth advocating for. Change is how people move forward and out of the ‘60s. If we lead with unified open-minds, love and acceptance, there is hope after all.

Read our ‘Hairspray’ preview:

It’s nearly impossible to leave Uihlein Hall without a smile as big as Tracy’s hair. “Hairspray” runs at the Marcus Performing Arts Center from Feb. 7 to 12. To get ticket information, click here.


Last year, “Hairspray” made stops in Appleton and Madison. Check out our 2022 interview with Metcalf, here.