It takes a tough man to be a tender drag queen. And local television and radio personality Robert Aubry Davis does Edna Turnblad’s cha-cha heels and bazooka-sized bra proud in Signature Theatre’s radiant, ecstatic production of Hairspray, the 2006 musical about Baltimore in the segregated early 1960s that mixes racial integration with teen dance party syncopation.

Carolyn Cole as Tracy Turnblad ) and Robert Aubry Davis as Edna (Photo: Christopher Mueller)


Director Eric Schaeffer, aided by Karma Camp’s dance-mad choreography and Daniel Conway’s cityscape set that features touches of pink flamingo pink, makes a gender-bending musical star out of Mr. Davis, who plays Edna with a sweetness and largeness of heart that makes you root for this housebound hausfrau’s efforts to break free of Kennedy era fatphobia and live it up large.

The sight of the musically erudite Mr. Davis in an assortment of housecoats and a plus-sized Gidget ensemble (with matching flip hairdo and headband) will lift your spirits, as will the relationship between Edna and her daughter Tracy (Carolyn Cole), a “chubby” teenager who dances like a go-go girl on steroids and who wants to get her chance to bust a move on “The Corny Collins Show,” a Baltimore teen dance program. But Tracy just doesn’t want to cut a rug—she wants to make history by integrating the show until “every day is Negro Day.”

Hairspray chronicles Tracy’s efforts to erase race lines, fight weight discrimination, liberate her mother, and win the heart of hip-swiveling hunk Link Larkin (Patrick Thomas Cragin, whose self-deprecating sex appeal and teen idol charm makes you think of Justin Timberlake).

Whew, that’s an ambitious order, but Tracy is one of those take-charge musical theater heroines who just get out there and do it—while singing like Connie Francis coupled with a Lesley Gore-style gulpiness and dancing up a storm, mind you—and not wait for some man.

Miss Cole’s Tracy is as bubbly as a fresh Pepsi, and her performance makes you feel like a pint-sized star is born, especially in the hilarity of her struck-dumb rendition of “I Can Hear the Bells,” a song about meeting Link for the first time, and the wide-open purity of the show’s opening number, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” a love letter to Charm City that includes a flasher and a motorized rat darting across the stage while Tracy sings about her eccentric hometown and her homegrown hopes.

Nova Y. Payton as Motormouth Maybelle (Photo: Christopher Mueller)

You feel the same way about Lauren Williams’ nervy, nuanced performance as her best friend Penny Pingleton, a gum-chewing, crazily inhibited gal squashed under the thumb of her over-protective mother (Lynn Audrey Neal). Penny starts emerging from her shell, and busts out completely—and memorably—when she meets up with a talented black dancer, Seaweed J. Stubbs (the dynamic James Hayden Rodriguez), a young man with moves that would make James Brown in his heyday look constrained.  His partner in powerhouse is Nova Y. Payton as the bold local deejay Motormouth Maybelle, who brings the house down with the ample sass of her tribute to avoirdupois, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful,” and then tops herself in the second act with the skilled build-up and consummate control of the bluesy anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Seaweed and his set conspire with Tracy to infiltrate “The Corny Collins Show” and usher it into a new era—one that doesn’t include the show’s draconian, prejudiced producer, Velma Von Tussle (Sherri Edelen, sashaying around like an Alfred Hitchcock blonde and who ends her songs with a triumphant wicked witch cackle) and her daughter, Amber (a delightfully snooty Erin Driscoll), a spoiled teen queen in dire need of a comeuppance.

(center) Stephen Gregory Smith as Corny Collins with Jennifer Cameron (left) and Erin Driscoll (right) (Photo: Christopher Mueller)

The Corny Collins scenes – enhanced by Stephen Gregory Smith’s suave turn as an emcee with social conscience – are so infectious and expertly choreographed you are itching to dig out your “Hullaballoo” duds and join the party while the cast performs such upbeat numbers as “Welcome to the 60s” and “Run and Tell That.” Even the quieter moments work beautifully, such as Edna and husband Wilbur (Harry A. Winter, deftly daft as a gentle jokester) executing a soft-shoe routine that showcases their affection in “Timeless to Me” and the tongue-in-cheek swoon Tracy and Link’s love duet “It Takes Two.”

The show’s giddiness factor is off the charts, but the wondrous thing about Hairspray is that it manages to be true to the can-do optimism of America in 1962 while capturing John Waters’ off-kilter sensibilities, especially in Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman’s smirky, pun-drunk lyrics.

Somehow, you don’t think the show could get any happier, but then there’s the finale number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” which builds to crescendo after crescendo of pure pop nirvana. Hairsprayshows that you can’t stop social change or the beat of a new generation coming into power. And you would never want to.

Hairspray runs thru Jan 29, 2012 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, (Shirlington Village), Arlington, VA.


Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Based on the film “Hairspray” written and directed by John Waters
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard

Highly recommended
Running time: Approximately 2 and 1/2 hours with one 15-minute intermission


Jayne Blanchard interviews Robert Aubry Davis

  Other reviews
Jayne Blanchard About Jayne Blanchard

Jayne Blanchard has been a critic covering DC theater for the past 10 years, most recently for the Washington Times. Prior to that, she was a theater critic in the Twin Cities and a movie reviewer in the Washington area. She is a proud resident of Baltimore.


  1. Diane Carroad says:

    Agree w/ the above. Fabulous show in all respects from directing and acting to every element of tech.
    Last night, Robert Aubrey Davis (who plays the part of Edna) and who feels strongly about the bias vs “big-boned” gals (and those considered “less than normal”) indicated that if women contact the box office and use the code, RAD, they’ll get a 10% discount — no weighing necessary!

  2. Never saw before and didn’t expect anything special. But from the opening anthem to Baltimore until the closing with the cast dancing in the aisles, we were entranced by the whole production. Singers, dancers, musicians, the story, staging, costumes, and all made this one of the best musicals we have ever seen. Signature’s thrust stage with only five rows of seats really puts you in the action.

    The night we were there the role of Edna was played by the understudy. She did not camp it up, but made the tradition bound mother a believable person. The multigenerational love songs in the second act were beautiful, as was Nova Payton’s “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which started quietly and ended with her call for the kids to keep up the momentum for integration.

    It was a rousing evening, a fun evening, and a totally joyous event.   

  3. Terrific production! Saw the show with the original cast on Broadway and was not a fan at all. This on the other hand is wonderful. Particularly Carolyn Cole.

  4. You are so right about this show – great fun and it’s much better than the Broadway touring company at the Kennedy Center last season. GO SEE IT!

  5. Great review for a great show!



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