January 4, 2007 in City

No snarls in musical delight

By The Spokesman-Review

If “Hairspray” were a hairdo, it wouldn’t be something plastered with grease, or should I say, “Grease.” It would be something big, bleached and frizzy – and much, much more fun.

“Hairspray” is that rare modern musical which follows the old Broadway axioms: Give the people a tuneful score, a sweet story and a stage full of goofy but lovable characters.

And guess what happens? Audiences go home ridiculously happy. The crowd exiting the theater on Tuesday night was so giddy I thought they might go dancing right out onto Spokane Falls Boulevard. You’d think they were a bunch of 1962 Baltimore teenagers.

The amazing thing about “Hairspray” is that it was inspired by the least-likely source material: A campy 1988 John Waters cult movie about misfit teenagers starring the cross-dressing Divine. It didn’t, on first glance, seem to be a candidate for a good-natured, old-fashioned musical.

Yet, it turns out to be perfect. First of all, the creators of this musical – Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan – recognized the basic sweetness of the story, which is about a teenager named Tracy Turnblad who just wants to be a dancer on the “Corny Collins Show,” despite the fact that she is a little on the plus side.

They also saw that the characters, even big Edna, Tracy’s low-rent mom, are actually quite earnest and honorable, with little use for irony or sarcasm. And they saw that the show’s message – one of racial integration and tolerance for differences – is sincere and heartfelt.

Mostly, they recognized that the story was already about dancing and music – infectious, good-time, early-60s rock ‘n’ roll and R&B. So why not just go all the way and make it a musical?

Eight Tony Awards later, it looks like they had the right idea.

This national touring production, which will be in town through Sunday, is a faithful and professional replica of the show that has wowed folks on Broadway.

It boasts the endearing and energetic Brooklynn Pulver as Tracy. Pulver has a fine singing voice well-suited to this doo-wop material. Pulver’s dancing moves are crisp, precise and, yes, lithe, which is important because we have to believe she is a good enough dancer to make, essentially, Baltimore history.

Jerry O’Boyle has some big triple-E cups to fill as Edna, the role originated by Harvey Fierstein. O’Boyle has a trace of Harvey’s gruff mannerisms, but he creates his own sweet, gentle and truly endearing Edna. He looks smashing in a flashy red gown, too.

The cast is loaded with terrific supporting performances. My hands-down favorite was Alyssa Malgeri as Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton. Malgeri, dwarfed by her big red bouffant, displays perfect comic timing as a somewhat dim teen-kid. When someone suggests that the kids carry some protest signs, Penny shouts out, “And we could put words on them!”

Yvette Monique Clark as Motormouth Maybelle delivers a showstopper number with the anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Constantine Rousouli and Christian White are both lovable teen hunks as, respectively, Link Larkin and Seaweed J. Stubbs.

The dance company, as a whole, is well-drilled and in possession of national class talent. I was also impressed with the 11-piece pit orchestra, under the direction of Jeremy Randall, which truly blasted out the sound. There was nothing pre-fab and synthesized about this score.

The show ends with a clever, satisfying production number titled “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” which celebrates Tracy’s triumph in winning the teen crown. Yet one of the great things about “Hairspray” is that her triumph is not about that. It’s about integrating “The Corny Collins Show” once and for all.

That’s what I call a feel-good musical.

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