The thing won eight Tony Awards out of 13 nominations and ran for more than 2,500 performances, more than six years, ending Jan. 4, 2009. Thus Auburn’s Merry- Go-Round Playhouse knew the first regional professional production of the Scott Wittman- Marc Shaiman musical Hairspray was a sure box-office hit.
The show, which both spoofs and loves the bubble gum music of the 1960s, has wide appeal, not unlike ABBA’s score for Mamma Mia! It’s a strange but sweet fate for a musical that celebrates interracial romance and features a plus-size transvestite. Filmmaker John Waters, whose 1988 non-musical Hairspray was an affront to stuffy convention, started all this. With the right kind of music, however, his funky but edgy satire becomes a light summertime dessert.
Admittedly, the 1988 Hairspray was Waters’ first foray into PG flicks. His earlier features, like Pink Flamingos (1972), were rated X and shown only after midnight in theaters before home video. When he decided to go closer to the mainstream with Hairspray, he retained his 300-pound signature actor, known as Divine (a.k.a Harris Glenn Milstead), in the drag role of the mother, Edna Turnblad. Since the action is focused on afternoon television dance shows of 1962 like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Edna should be a supporting role but somehow dominates the action. It doesn’t just happen, however. The right guy has to do it.
Darryl Winslow might be a few pounds under Divine, and his falsetto works better in songs than in dialogue, but in all other regards he makes you forget some prominent and weighty dudes who have come before him. The trick is to play Edna, well, straight rather than campy. The gag is that we’re not supposed to notice. When first seen Edna is a worrisome frump, under curlers, doing domestic chores at the ironing board. As the plot progresses, Edna becomes steadily more feminine until, at her final entrance, she’s transformed into a zaftig beauty. Clapping our approval is like cheering to prove we believe in Tinker Bell in Peter Pan.
Along the way composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman pull off their most audacious number, a genuinely touching softshoe love duet between Edna and deludedinventor husband Wilbur Turnblad (Brian Runbeck), who always wears mismatched clothes.
It’s called “You’re Timeless to Me,” a pre-rock confection that sounds as though it might have come from Forever Plaid. In some ways the number is key to what Hairspray is about. We are always asked to disbelieve our lying eyes and to love the misfits.
What made the original Hairspray revolutionary was the complete disavowal of the Barbie Doll template of youthful beauty, smashing all the images of Gidget, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee. Tracy Turnblad of gritty Baltimore must look like a real person, namely not tall and not thin. While there may be many such girls at the mall, actresses with these measurements often find it hard to get steady work in musical theater, except to be one of the rejectees in A Chorus Line.
Luckily, fate has smiled on boisterous LenaMary Amato, who has made a specialty of Tracy and really knows what she’s doing. She opens with the defiant anthem, “Good Morning Baltimore,” and keeps the adrenalin flowing at warp speed throughout “I Can Hear the Bells” and “Welcome to the 60s.” Much of the show relies on her spark and hearty volume. As the rights to Hairspray have only just been released to regional theaters, Amato can expect to be in constant demand.
In a time-worn comic ploy, short, wide characters are often paired with their physical opposites, the tall and skinny. As Tracy’s sidekick Penny Pingleton, Mary Claire King more than fits that bill, with a taller, thinner silhouette than Nicole Kidman. No one is going to steal scenes from Amato’s Tracy, but King’s rousing comic invention with the stumbling Penny is surely a distinction of this production. Her dance numbers are uproarious. By the finale, of course, Penny is also transformed into a swan. A Syracuse University Drama Department student, King used her unique frame to erotic effect as her blazing Kit-Kat Girl named Texas in last fall’s Cabaret.
The battle these two misfits, Tracy and Penny, must win is against the straights and the bigots. Even though the roots of 1962’s pop music were clearly in African-America, the local TV station’s teen dance show, hosted by Corny Collins (Mathew Schwartz), was strictly segregated. Producer Velma Von Tussle (Deborah Tranelli) thinks this is good for business. Velma’s hyper-blonde daughter Amber (Lauren Devine) brusquely dismisses Tracy and Penny as non-persons. Not everyone at TV station WZZT is an adversary, however. Heartthrob singer Link Larkin (Tim Quartier), a fairhaired Elvis, turns out to be amazingly open to Tracy’s previously unappreciated charms.
Meanwhile, black Baltimore really doesn’t need white advocates to get its voice heard. The brother and sister team of Seaweed J. Stubbs (Jonathan Burke) and Little Inez (Brittany Duck) already dance better than the white kids on the once-a-month “Negro Day.” This truism is not lost on Penny, a head taller than Seaweed, who’s quickly smitten. If this is what integrating The Corny Collins Show leads to, both sides are ready.
The host of “Negro Day,” record store owner Motormouth Maybelle (Karen Marie Richardson), asserts more than the dance steps she teaches. She leads a mother-daughter march on the station, joined by all the younger members of the cast as well as Edna and Wilbur. They nearly all get busted, which leads to Motormouth’s first-act finale, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful.”
The idea that mostly white musicals should bring in black talent or at least black idiom goes back to the 1920s, with shows like Vincent Youmans’ Hit the Deck and “Hallelujah.”
Hairspray’s book writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan surely love the Motormouth character, but they don’t always know how to use her, once having her wait in disguise for a surprise entrance. But when the time comes to turn up the beat and volume, that’s who the show turns to, so that she climaxes both acts, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” in the first and the second act’s “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a real show-stopper.
Integrating Hairspray at another level are three gorgeous woman as The Supremes lookalikes, called The Dynamites. Keely Beirne, Gabrielle Porter and Naomi Walley all bring a note of Motown to Baltimore in scene after scene.
Merry-Go-Round’s now customary high production standards reign in all but one area: sound. While we care most about the songs, too much dialogue from younger members of the cast comes out garbled. On the plus side, however, Garth Dunbar’s humorous exaggerations of period costumes put an edge on nostalgia. Kathy Sebreros’ hair and makeup design revive all the horror of the bouffant era. Mark Goodman’s music direction employs, in some numbers, what sounds like the electronic version of a powerhouse Wurlitzer. And director Kate Swan doubles as choreographer in the high-energy routines that would have knocked ’em dead on The Corny Collins Show.
This production runs through July 20. See Times Table for more information.