Andrew Levitt, — best known as Nina West on RuPaul’s Drag Race — will bring a new dimension to the groundbreaking role of Edna Turnblad when Hairspray opens Tuesday at the Miller Theater on the Kimmel Cultural Campus.
Levitt, the first drag queen to play Edna since Divine originated the role for the 1988 film, takes his performance beyond the finger-snapping fierceness that’s long defined drag, to create a more emotionally available and dimensional Edna Turnblad. Levitt’s Edna has self-awareness that gets to be without being over the top.
Divine stepped into the role of Tracy Turnblad’s fiercely protective mother like the fierce drag queen she was. Harvey Fierstein, who starred as Edna in Hairspray’s 2002 Broadway debut, was a shy, but throaty diva, much like he is. And in the 2007 remake of the movie, John Travolta, portrayed Edna as meek and a rule-follower.
“This is not a nightclub act,” Levitt (pronounced love-it) said. “I’m Tracy’s mom, a woman trying to embrace her daughter and her husband and live bravely. Edna is overweight, she’s self-conscious, and she’s very, very uncomfortable in her own skin.”
Hairspray is the story of 16-year-old Tracy Turnblad, (Niki Metcalf) who fancies big hair and dancing. Tracy is sent to detention where she befriends a group of Black teenagers who teach her how to dance with soul. Her new moves get her noticed on the Corny Collins (Billy Dawson) Show, a fictional reference to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. There, she’s outraged that Black teenagers aren’t allowed to dance in the same building, let alone on the same stage. She is alienated by white people who also make fun of her because she’s “chubby.” In the end, Tracy, Black record store owner Motormouth Maybelle (Sandie Lee) and her son Seaweed J. Stubbs (Jamonté D. Bruten) integrate the Corny Collins Show, culminating in the iconic dance number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
Levitt sees his role as a continuation of the civil rights, women’s equality, and LGBTQ rights conversations Hairspray’s writer John Waters started back in the 1980s. When we meet Edna, she’s a housewife who hasn’t left the house in 20 years. She’s not empowered to make decisions about her life and she’s ashamed of her weight. By the end of the play, she’s picketing with Tracy in a snazzy wardrobe. “Edna blossoms like a flower and emerges with confidence in herself,” Levitt said.
Levitt was able to play Turnblad with agency thanks to the queens who came before him. Divine was among the first men to portray a woman in drag on a movie screen. Still, drag performers were usually afterthoughts to cisgendered male celebrities like Robin Williams’ Mrs. Doubtfire, Tyler Perry’s Madea, and Travolta’s Edna, who would perform in drag for comedy relief for mainstream Hollywood.
Shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race, the reality series that celebrates the art of drag while helping queens build self-esteem that debuted in 2009, are part of the evolution of drag performers. Levitt’s drag persona, Nina West, appeared on the show’s 11th season. She placed sixth and won Miss Congeniality. Shows like Pose, that feature both queens and transgender women, opened the door for Levitt to perform authentically creating a more nuanced Edna.
“We aren’t surprising you with this idea of a man playing a woman,” said Jack O’Brien, the director of the Tony Award-winning play. “Levitt’s version is substantial. She is real. You can really believe in who she is.”
Hairspray is upbeat and fun, just what we need as the country continues to try to shake a pandemic. The show began touring last fall as part of its 20th Broadway anniversary. Hairspray remains relevant because it mirrors our society’s current fights to maintain voting rights, reproductive choice, and marriage equality. These rights were granted to Americans after the fictional events in Hairspray took place.
“This show represents the voices of many — women, LGBTQ+, people of color — and we will not have our voices silenced,” Levitt said. “This show represents to me the unbridled joy of stepping into truth and fighting for what you believe in. And that’s power.”
Hairspray is on stage at the Miller Theater on the Kimmel Center Campus from May 17 to May 22. Tickets are $39-$109 and available at kimmelculturalcampus.org.