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