December 27, 2011 | by Patrick Folliard
Teased up but Waters-downed

‘Hairspray’
Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington
Through Jan. 29
$63 and up
703-820-9771
signature-theatre.org

Carolyn Cole, center, as Tracy Turnblad with the cast of ‘Hairspray.’ (Photo by Christopher Mueller; courtesy Signature)

“Hairspray’s” chubby heroine Tracy Turnblad never set out to be an activist. She just wanted to dance on TV.

Like a lot of teens, Tracy is into pop music, cute boys and the latest fashion trends which, in 1962 Baltimore, means big hair. But more than anything she’d like to be a regular dancing on “The Corny Collins Show” (think “American Bandstand”). Despite being overweight, Tracy realizes her dream and emerges as a breakout star. Not content to make inroads exclusively in size inclusiveness, she pushes for the show to integrate — Tracy wants her new black friends (from whom she learns the latest moves) to be on air every afternoon and not just once a month on “Negro Day.” Risking her newfound fame, she leads a protest against the TV station’s racist policies and finds teen romance in the process.

Based on gay auteur John Waters’ same-titled 1988 film (see our Waters’ interview here), the multiple Tony Award-winning musical “Hairspray” is an anti-segregation story with a good beat you can dance to. Marc Shaiman, the show’s composer and its co-lyricist with his musical and life partner Scott Wittman, have drawn inspiration from early ‘60s pop and R&B, but the high energy and heartwarming score is still distinctly Broadway. Highlights include “Good Morning Baltimore,” “Welcome to the ‘60s” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

Admirably staged by Signature’s gay artistic director Eric Schaeffer, the production is relatively intimate and incessantly entertaining. Per usual, Schaeffer has brought together an able creative team. Karma Camp and Brianne Camp’s vigorous choreography reads like a slice from a great ‘60s dance party. John Kalbfleisch is the musical director and pianist Jenny Cartney conducts a top-notch nine-piece orchestra. The witty, colorful costumes are by Kathleen Geldard and set designer Daniel Conway provides a gritty, midnight blue Baltimore streetscape dominated by a faded advert for Ultra Clutch Hairspray — so much better than the New York production’s Day-Glo explosion.

A talented mix of familiar and new faces comprises the 25-person cast including big-voiced Carolyn Cole as the indomitable, bubbly Tracy. Sherri L. Edelen is wonderfully corrupt as villainess Velma Von Tussle, the TV show’s racist producer. Lynn Audrey Neal plays both the butch gym teacher and the butch — but tap dance-loving — jail matron. Nova Y. Payton’s Motormouth Maybelle brings down the house with a powerful rendition of the heartfelt spiritual “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Lauren Williams is terrific as goony Penny, Tracy’s loyal best friend who, despite the hysterical prejudices of her tyrannical mother (Neal again), finds love with African-American teen Seaweed (the excellent James Hayden Rodriquez) and blossoms into a happy and fashionable “checkerboard chick.”

In a bit of stunt casting, national radio and public TV personality Robert Aubry Davis (who’s straight) swaps out his usual cultured tones for more “Balmer, hon” sounds and wears a dress in the role of Tracy’s mother Edna. While his portrayal of the agoraphobic housewife who takes in washing isn’t as layered as those of more professional actors like drag superstar Divine and drag-acquainted Harvey Fierstein who played Edna in the original film and on Broadway respectively (John Travolta donned the triple X housedress for the musical film version), Davis’ wistful Edna grows on you.

Waters’ version was one of the notorious director’s first ventures into the mainstream, so it’s less raunchy than his earlier stuff, and the musical “Hairspray’s” libretto is a tad cleaner still. But the hilarious Waters’ worldview remains. Tracy’s mother pops diet pills. Her father sells whoopee cushions. Girls stuff their bras and boys stuff their briefs. And in her struggle to be both stylish and do the right thing, Tracy ends up in high school detention and even jail. But the more the plus-size teen defies authority, the better life is for her and those around her, and the higher her hair rises.

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