Theatre Review: ‘Hairspray’ at City Springs Theatre


City Springs Theatre is presenting the musical comedy “Hairspray,” music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, directed by Brandt Blocker. The show runs at City Springs’ 1,000-seat theatre through July 21.

There is choreography by Cindy Mora Reiser and music direction by Chris Brent Davis, who plays keyboard and conducts a 10-piece orchestra that sounds like 25. I never cease to wonder how musicians do that these days.

The mastermind not mentioned in the program is John Waters, who wrote and directed the 1988 film on which the current work is based. Mr. Waters’ original movie was not a musical, though it had dance and musical numbers in it. Being no fool, he allowed a Broadway musical to be produced of his work in 2002; it proceeded to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and ran over 2,500 performances; it also triumphed in the West End, enjoying a long London run. Then there was a movie of the musical; then a live TV version!

In its present form, “Hairspray” is a musical comedy dream. On the surface, it may seem too outrageous, too campy, too over-the-top, too everything to work. But this show has a secret weapon: Her name is Tracy Turnblad (Jennifer Massey). Tracy is a plus-size, teen-aged jolt of joy who sees obstacles as stepping stones. She’s a high school girl whose unbounded optimism is as big as her hair (it’s 1962, Baltimore, and big hair is not just “in,” it rules, fortified by ten tons of hairspray). Even the boys have it, sort of.

By the way, you may have seen the movie (musical or non-musical) or the TV show, but “Hairspray” live is much more fun. Tracy lives with her mother Edna (Greg London continuing the tradition – Divine, John Travolta, Harvey Feirstein – of the character being played by a man) and father Wilbur (Steve Hudson).

Tracy’s biggest current desire is to dance on Baltimore’s “The Corny Collins Show,” a teenage dance fest produced by Velma Von Tussle (Deborah Bowman), who ruthlessly promotes her daughter Amber (Alison Brannon Wilhoit), both in winning prizes on the show and hopefully winning heartthrob Link Larkin’s (Chase Peacock) affections. Tracy has hitherto admired Link on television. Her best pal Penny (Leigh Ellen Jones) encourages Tracy to audition when a spot on the TV shot becomes vacant.

By the way, “the girl’s first song,” a tradition in musicals (think “A Cockeyed Optimist” or “I’m the Greatest Star”), is when the female lead states who she is, what she wants, and what may happen. In “Hairspray” Tracy sings “Good Morning Baltimore,” a number so fiercely bright, cheery, and fearless (especially as performed by Ms. Massey), that you think Tracy may just take flight—and take you with her. And you learn a lot about Tracy’s indomitable spirit. This is no ordinary girl.

I cannot tell you the entire plot; however, when Tracy gets detention (for “inappropriate hair height”), she meets Seaweed (Christian Magby), an African-American student who shares Tracy’s passion for dance. Tracy learns that black kids can only dance on “Corny Collins” one day a month, and Tracy instantly perceives the injustice of that. Tracy is for immediate integration (this is the early 60’s, remember) and later finds an ally in Motormouth Maybelle (Kayce Grogan Wallace), Seaweed’s mother and the owner of a record shop.

In a twinkling of an eye the show becomes inadvertently prescient and political and you’re not even sure how it happens! But don’t think for a second that “Hairspray” is heavy-handed about race, inclusion, acceptance, or body-shaming. But the fact is, my friends, that “You Can’t Stop the Beat” of “Hairspray’s” hilarity, outrageousness, fun, and message any more than you can stop “the motion of the ocean.”

There are too many fun, memorable musical moments (like Ms. Wallace’s roof-raising “I Know Where I’ve Been” or Ms. Bowman’s “Miss Baltimore Crabs”) to mention. You must see the show.

This is a really fine cast, some of whom I’ve mentioned, and they all have standout moments. And there are more: Chris Saltalamacchio’s Corny Collins; Marci Millard’s triple performance as Prudy, the Gym Teacher, and the Jail Matron; Tony Hayes’ Mr. Pinky and Principal; Arjaye Johnson’s Little Inez; Grace Arnold’s Shelly; CJ Babb’s Duane, and many more in the Ensemble, fine singers and dancers.

I believe director Brandt Blocker has a little Tracy Turnblad in him, for he has written: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could change hearts and minds through the power of song, laughter, sincerity, and dance, as opposed to social media feuding and fighting?”

Mr. Blocker, I believe you and “Hairspray” have succeeded more than you know.

For tickets and information, visit cityspringstheatre.com.

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