Hairspray is the kind of show that sneaks up on you. One moment, you're bopping along to 1960s dance music, and the next, there's a lump in your throat as you listen the lyrics of "I Know Where I've Been."
That's what happens at Drury Lane's production of Hairspray, an infectious, fun, garishly bright musical that slyly gets to deeper issues like racism, self-esteem and bullying. And although the show is set in 1960s Baltimore, it seems incredibly relevant for modern-day Chicago.
Take Tracy Turnblad, the peppy plus-sized heroine. She longs to dance on "The Corny Collins Show," but is told she's too short, fat and big-haired to be part of the show-or to win the heart of Link Larkin (Justin Bieber before Justin Bieber). But Tracy, the eternal optimist, ignores the taunts of mean girl Amber and the well-meaning concerns of her own mother to go for what she wants.
Of course, it isn't simple. Tracy takes on the specter of racism at the height of the civil rights movement when she advocates for the TV program to be integrated and ends up in jail after being involved in a protest. "I Know Where I've Been," sung by the DJ who hosts "Negro Day" on the show, gives an intimate look at African-American life in the 1960s. And Tracy's white best friend falls for a black boy, sparking some conversation about interracial relationships.
Of course for all its sunny music, Hairspray isn't entirely G-rated. Sexual innuendos are sprinkled throughout, although they're likely to go over the littlest kids' heads. And parents would do well to prepare an answer to "Why is that man in a dress?" ahead of time. (The production continues the tradition of casting a man in the role of Tracy's mother.)
By the time they get to the last song of the show, "You Can't Stop the Beat," you may think a bit more deeply about the words "tomorrow is a brand new day and it don't know white from black." And it's likely you'll leave not only humming the catchy tunes, but also thinking a little more deeply about how you view others-and yourself.
Elizabeth Diffin is the associate editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.