This Hairspray Won’t Let You Down
Beneath the fun and fluff is the true history of Baltimore kids caught at the color line
A good hairspray delivers lasting style that looks sleek and natural, and at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s final musical of the season that’s just what you get.
This story may seem like pure fluff with its comical dance steps and exaggerated hairdos. But it’s based on historical events surrounding a real TV show, Baltimore’s popular teen-dance showcase The Buddy Dean Show, transformed for this script into The Corny Collins Show. It’s a place where The Nicest Kids in Town strutted their wholesome white stuff every weekday afternoon, except once a month on Negro Day, a practice that proved so controversial by 1962 that the show’s desegregation led to its demise.
The social message is dear to director Darnell Morris’ heart, for he is descended from one of those teen activists. His attention to detail — from the row house set to beehive hairdos and time-warp costumes — makes this incredible Cinderella tale as credible as possible. Which is to say, not very because bigots don’t change their minds in the span of one song. Still, as a romantic comedy, Hairspray’s a rave, with hummable hits, heroes, villains and a lovable underdog.
When Corny Collins (Chad Wheeler) auditions new dancers, plump and perky Tracy Turnblad (Anastasia Herne) becomes an unlikely teen idol. Caught by surprise are the show’s wicked and prejudiced producer Velma Von Tussel (Donielle Juenker); her spoiled daughter Amber (Christina Carlucci) and even Tracy’s own oversized and overprotective mother Edna (Jeff Sprague, surprisingly graceful in drag).
Tracy’s father Wilbur (Kevin Reagan) isn’t surprised. Neither are sheltered friend Penny Pingleton (Jenny Abraham) or black friends Seaweed J. Stubbs (Rodney Davis Jr.) and Dynamite (Nia Smith). Not even Amber’s dreamboat co-star and boyfriend Link Larkin (Austin Heemstra), on whom Tracy has a killer crush.
Things look bad enough for Tracy when her budding relationship with Link prompts a jealous Amber to retaliate. But the nicest kids in town turn downright nasty once she starts campaigning to integrate their show. Even the help of Seaweed’s radio celebrity mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Tia-Cherie Dolet), can’t save the demonstrators from a stint in jail (The Big Doll House), particularly with an interracial romance between Seaweed and Penny brewing.
This cast, all 26 performers, is a director’s dream.
You’ll thrill to Herne’s Good Morning Baltimore, swoon to Heemstra’s It Takes Two and seethe at Juenker’s Miss Baltimore Crabs. Dance in your seat to Davis’ Run and Tell That and flip over Dolet’s Big, Blonde and Beautiful. Edna’s makeover in Welcome to the Sixties is a finessed blast from the past.
There’s so much energy in this show that the ballads — like Sprague and Reagans’ duet You’re Timeless to Me — are a welcome rest, even if less musically rewarding, for the philosophies of love and family values are one of the show’s sweetest elements. My favorite for its universal truths well told is the mother/daughter anthem Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now.
On the down side, Hairspray the play, unlike the film, is a little too long. It’s like sustaining the rush and blush of a first drink through a two-and-a-half hour binge. Also, the sound system is disappointing for such a high-volume show. Too many lyrics and plot developments are lost to uneven mikes or static. And for a story set in Baltimore, only Sprague stands out for his accent.
Still, to quote a vintage Adorn commercial, this show is pretty enormous, tremendous and stupendous.
Hairspray: by Mark O’Donnell by Scott Whitman, Marc Shaiman and Thomas Meehan. Director and set designer: Darnell Morris. Musical director: Trent J. Goldsmith. Choreographer: Nicole Martin. Costumers: Nikki Gerbasi, Debra Foley and Jaime McKown. Lights: Ben Levine. Sound: Bob Foery.
Playing thru September 4 at 8:30pm Th-Su at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise St., Annapolis. $18; rsvp: 410-268-9212; www.summergarden.com.