Niki Metcalf, Andrew Levitt (aka Nina West) and company in Hairspray. Credit: Jeremy Daniel

Andrew Levitt first fell in love with Hairspray in 2002.

“I had a chance to see it in July of 2002, before it opened, on Broadway,” he said. “I was a young, 23-year-old gay kid who was in love with Harvey Fierstein and studied Torch Song Trilogy when I was in college. I was just obsessed with La Cage aux Folles—and here I get to see this person I love so much onstage. This musical really shaped me.”

Nearly 20 years later, Levitt—you may know him by his drag name, Nina West—is now headlining a national touring production of the beloved musical, which will be arriving at the McCallum Theatre for five shows from Friday, Dec. 3, through Sunday, Dec. 5. Hairspray represents the return of theater to the McCallum for the first time since that heinous virus arrived; Palm Desert will be the tour’s fifth stop.

I spoke to Levitt while the company was in San Jose and asked him how his first handful of shows had gone as Edna Turnblad, the scene-stealing mother of teen Tracy Turnblad, whose dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show.

“Oh my gosh. Are you kidding me? Every night’s a different dance with the audience,” he said. “Every night is getting to introduce this character to a whole new room full of people who have never seen me do it. It’s thrilling.”

Levitt graduated from Denison University with a degree in theater, and intended to head to New York City to pursue an acting career. However, the Sept. 11 attacks changed all that; Levitt instead decided to stay home in his native Ohio. He began dabbling in drag, and that dabbling eventually turned into a wildly successful career. In 2019, Nina West finished sixth on the 11th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race—earning her fans ranging from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Rihanna.

Levitt noted that three true drag queens have played Edna Turnblad in a major production of Hairspray: Divine, who originated the role in John Waters’ 1988 film; Harvey Fierstein, in the first Broadway adaptation of Hairspray and again in NBC’s 2016 production of Hairspray Live!; and now Nina West.

“These are huge shoes to fill, and it’s exciting that I’ve been given the opportunity to do it,” Levitt said. “I’m such a huge fan of this show. I’m such a huge fan of Harvey Fierstein, who originated (the role) on Broadway. I’m such a huge John Waters fan, and in turn, Divine. All of this feels very surreal to me, to be living this dream on 20 years from when I graduated, having veered off down a different path. It’s just so exciting, and thrilling, and amazing how the universe works.”

“It’s really important for our audiences to be reminded of how important this story is. The thrilling conclusion, with every company member singing ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’—you’re basically saying, ‘You can’t stop the progress, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try to hold somebody back; you cannot. You simply can’t do it.’”

andrew levitt, aka nina west

I asked Levitt what it was like to follow in the footsteps of the late, great Divine, arguably the most famous drag queen of the 20th century.

“I don’t know a world without Divine,” Levitt said. “I was introduced to Divine in 1988. … I have an older sister who brought this (Divine) movie home from the VHS store, and I got to watch it for the very first time. I had no idea at the time that Divine was a drag queen. … It’s still very surreal to be next to those two names.”

While John Waters wrote the original screenplay for Hairspray in the 1980s, many of its themes—including the scourge of racial discrimination—still apply today.

“The show is really, really relevant now,” Levitt said. “Probably more so than ever, as the conversation about race relations and racial injustice in our country is at a fevered pitch, as it should be. There have been some rewrites from the original creative team to try to be even more timely for the world that we are in today. It’s really important for our audiences to be reminded of how important this story is. The thrilling conclusion, with every company member singing ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’—you’re basically saying, ‘You can’t stop the progress, and it doesn’t matter how hard you try to hold somebody back; you cannot. You simply can’t do it.’”

Levitt’s voice exuded joy as he discussed Hairspray. Has playing Edna Turnblad, the loving but insecure mother-turned-star clothing designer, rekindled his college dream of becoming a Broadway star?

“The dream is reignited and alive and well,” he said. “I’m not going to say that I ever gave up on this dream, but it definitely felt like a dream deferred, you know? My drag career has been hugely successful. I’ve had the chance to travel the world. And here, in the midst of all of this, this opportunity presented itself, thanks to (choreographer) Jerry Mitchell. I couldn’t say no. … I would love nothing more than to see this dream come true, of me being on Broadway. Little 12-year-old Andrew would probably lose his mind knowing that this was even a possibility.”

For now, Levitt is having the time of his life.

“It’s live theater. Nothing is phoned in, because it changes every night,” Levitt said. “A set piece might fall. I tripped down the stairs last night. I mean, like, anything could happen.”

Hairspray will be performed at 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 3; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 4; and 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $65 to $135. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Jimmy Boegle

Jimmy Boegle is the founding editor and publisher of the Coachella Valley Independent. A native of Reno, Nevada, the Dodgers fan went to Stanford University intending to become a sportswriter—but fell...