Since taking over as artistic director at the Redhouse nearly two years ago, Stephen Svoboda has established several reliable patterns. One is that he will not be limited by the intimate size of the Armory Square house. Pocket musicals like last spring’s production of Andrew Lippa’s John and Jen might be fine, but he’s not going to let the absence of a few square feet stop him from presenting a big-cast item like the current mounting of Hairspray.
Secondly, his being a professional outfit, he fills difficult or demanding roles with out-of-town Equity members, with notable exceptions. When he perceives that a non-professional can really hit the mark, he has shown a commendable willingness to let the local kids shine. Thus we have Cato-born Krystal Scott as Tracy Turnblad.
Tracy is a plus-sized warrior for the outs against the ins with a commanding voice. In both the non-musical (1988) and musical (2007) movie versions of the story, Tracy was played by young women (Ricki Lake and Nicki Blonsky, respectively) bursting with talent who might find it hard to be cast in other roles. Scott, who dominates the action from the rousing opening number “Good Morning Baltimore,” is so endearing that we can’t escape the perception that producing Hairspray right now is a matter of having the right girl in the right place at the right time. She’s spunky, bouncy, effervescent and lovable.
Not that Scott is an overnight discovery. She has been linked to Svoboda productions since their shared time together at the Adirondacks Lakes Center for the Arts, and she has served a long apprenticeship, appearing memorably as Emma Goldman in the Redhouse’s Assassins earlier this season.
In all, there are about 35 people gyrating across the stage, although one player takes seven roles. That means countless costume changes (thanks to Lisa Loen and Jody Luce) and wig replacements (thanks to designer Jason Flanders), but the production is richly campy rather than posh.
Younger audiences may have to be reminded that 50 years ago, literally 1962, American women were coerced into one of the most grotesque and unhealthy fashion trends of the century: teasing their hair into giant bouffants. One of the ongoing gags in this production is that period items are not authentic but rather exaggerated. When snotty Amber (Kelly Downes) shows up with her friends in later scenes, their wigs have grown to Versailles-level heights. So it is with the men. Their suits are shinier, their ties narrower, and their tie-clips tighter than anyone ever saw in those far-off days.
Hairspray’s unique taste derives, of course, from gay Baltimore filmmaker John Waters. Once thought subversive to bourgeois sensibility, he has proven to be genuinely avant-garde, anticipating directions the larger culture was going to take in regards to irony and tolerance. Tracy’s fight to let black kids appear on afternoon TV dance shows, like that of disc jockey Corny Collins (Chris Baron) in regional cities, might appear trifling compared to the integration of Southern public universities happening at the same time, but it was a tense business. Waters makes his points without ever becoming self-righteous or preachy. In Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s adaptation of Waters’ film script, all the respectable people and the “Nicest Kids in Town” (the collective name for the white chorus) have become laughable clowns.
Just the opposite happens to the script’s other dominant character, Tracy’s super-sized mother Edna. Initially Waters just wanted to cast his cross-dressing pal Divine, a signature player in his company. Now the role must be played by a guy in drag, and the joke is that nobody ever notices.
For this tricky assignment Svoboda calls in experienced professional Steve Hayes, an award-winning comedian, whose one-man show Steve Hayes: Hollywood Reunion appeared at the Redhouse last February. Although bulky, Hayes lacks sufficient girth and so is generously padded both fore and aft. This is just as well because both bosoms and buttocks can be shifted for greatest effect. Even though no one ever sees a guy beneath the housecoat and curler, Hayes gets some of his best laughs by breaking from form. For emphasis, he cuts out of his serviceable falsetto and turns to a resonant basso: “If you want to be famous, learn how to get blood out of car upholstery.”
In a disarmingly sweet subplot, Edna and her resourceful husband Wilbur (Jim Byrne), half her size, are renewing the romance in their marriage. Their vaudeville-like love duet, “Timeless to Me,” one of the few non-production numbers in Hairspray, stops the show. Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman’s lyrics, so clever elsewhere, let the feelings hang out here.
Of the two remaining must-do roles, one is filled nationally, the other locally. Motormouth Maybelle is the doyenne of Baltimore black music. Debra Thais Evans toured with the national company of Hairspray and brings both depth and wide experience. She delivers in two big numbers, “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful” (in a blonde wig) to close the first act, and “I Know Where I’ve Been” with her backup Record Shop Kids (the black chorus). Credit composer Shaiman for giving her music with soul on which to rise.
The other is the nominal villainess, Velma Van Hassell, the condescending and racist producer of the TV dance show. Because Hairspray is generous rather than mean, the role is usually played by a glamorous woman of a certain age; Michelle Pfeiffer played her in the 2007 movie. Svoboda astutely casts local favorite Moe Harrington but covers her in a massive Virginia Graham wig. Harrington, a notable cabaret performer, achieves the show’s single giddiest moment in her memory song, “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” Maybe she didn’t intend those clawed crustaceans in the Chesapeake.
Tracy’s cute comic sidekick is Penny (Kaleigh Pfohl), a blonde parochial schoolgirl who uses her saddle shoes to stomp on the taboo against interracial romance by falling in love with lithe, high-stepping Seaweed (Anthony Wright). Both Pfohl and Wright have been amassing glowing local credits and have never looked better.
Andrew Mauney brings national credits to his polished performance as Link Larkin, Tracy’s heart’s desire. In a combination of economy and virtuosity, Svoboda has Amanda Bruton take on seven roles, female and male, all of them a bit nasty. Quick as her changes are, we’re always in on the gag. In drag as a guy she looks a bit like Kevin Bacon.
Mary Angelo and Stephfond Brunson’s choreography is true to the time period and rigorously rehearsed. Zach Orts’ musical direction rocks the house, but now that his ensemble is moved behind a screen, the lyrics ride above the instrumentation.
This production runs through Dec. 15. See Times Table for information.