If there’s a hot-button issue that Hairspray misses making a progressive and positive statement about, I missed it. From body-shaming and racism to high school cliques and seeing rock ‘n’ roll as the Devil’s music, this musical stage adaptation of the 1988 film from cult director John Waters touches all bases on its way to a home run as a life-affirming celebration of self-expression, tolerance and teen idealism.
Set in the final years of segregation, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s script follows the irrepressibly optimistic Tracy Turnblad (Madison Nelson) — considered “short and stout” by the mean girls in her class — as she strives to be crowned “Miss Teenage Hairspray of 1962” on The Corny Collins Show, a local Baltimore version of American Bandstand.
Along the way she breaks barriers by becoming the TV program’s first plus-size regular, the first white girl in school to socialize with her African-American peers and embrace their music and dance styles, and probably the first unpopular girl in history to steal away a hunky heartthrob from her school’s reigning queen bee (Miranda Campagna). And while there’s no overt reference to LGBTQ issues, Tracy’s mom Edna is traditionally played by a man (a sympathetic Clayton King) — not as a drag queen, but as a full-figured woman with body and self-esteem issues who is nevertheless adored by her quirky, novelty store owner husband (an endearingly goofy Gil Young).
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score honors all of the pop radio styles of the era, from squeaky-clean, Pat Boone-style singles, to the lush harmonies of girl groups like The Ronettes, to the more sensual rhythm and blues introduced by Motown. Director Cindy Flach and musical director Greg Boatwright have assembled a vocally gifted cast of age-appropriate performers, with almost all of the teen characters playing their own age (i.e. 14-18), and most of the adults only a couple of decades older.
With younger singers, there’s always the risk of the ensemble sounding like a music class recital, but on a recent matinee, this cast uniformly sang out like seasoned pros, and were similarly up to the challenges of lively choreography from Heather Stokes. Janet Kile’s costumes had the requisite ’60s kitsch, managing to be colorful but not distracting. Scenic designer Danny Harrington wisely concentrated his detail on the glittery glam of the television show set, establishing other locations with a few stylized backdrops and simple furniture and props. A half dozen people were credited for wig design, and most of the women’s hairstyles were outlandishly teased into ridiculous bouffants and beehives — utterly appropriate for a show entitled Hairspray.
Popular film and live television productions have created a specific “look” that audiences expect for Tracey, and Nelson didn’t disappoint. Her buoyant cheerfulness and rich vocals created an appealing heroine, making it not surprising at all when she landed the boy of her dreams (Alex Cowsert). Cowsert once again comfortably channeled the style and mannerisms of vintage rockers, having embodied Carl Perkins in last year’s Million Dollar Quartet. Campagna was delightful and melodic as Tracey’s antagonist Amber, while Ashley Hayes as Amber’s villainous mother gleefully drew from the tradition of grandiloquent stage divas. Lee Martin as Motormouth Maybelle — the host of the TV station’s Negro Day — drew the most applause for her soulful and insightful performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” while Kaycee Tomkins was a bundle of energy as her daughter Inez, and Corey Robinson as her son Seaweed was as smooth as silk on the enticing “Run and Tell That.”
Ella Rescigno as Tracy’s repressed best friend Penny, and Jackie Rowe as the mom who’s doing the repressing, were outstanding, nearly stealing every scene they were in via countless mannerisms and amusing body language. Both performers made welcome transitions into playing older characters than they typically have in the past, and Rescigno rocked a gold lamé mini-dress like there was no tomorrow.
Waters initially found fame and notoriety in the ’70s with subversive, low-budget X-rated indie films usually featuring the trans actress Divine, who created the role of Edna, but the director mellowed as he matured, as did his cinematic style. Hairspray was an idealized reminiscence of his own teenage years as an outsider in Baltimore, and the story’s themes were rendered even more family-friendly in this musical incarnation for Broadway.
Apart from a half dozen vaguely racy references to first base, going all the way, and double entendres about the allure of dark chocolate and a “stiff” blast of hairspray, this production is innocuous while nevertheless addressing important societal themes. At nearly two and a half hours, and with those winking allusions to teenage romance, this might not be the best choice for the very youngest theater-goers, but otherwise the show is a jubilant, exuberant paean to individualism and acceptance.
Where: Town Theatre, 1012 Sumter St.
When: Through May 26
Price: $25 ($20 seniors 65-plus, active duty military, full-time college students; $15 youth 17 and under; group rates available)
More: 803-799-2510, towntheatre.com