Arts » Theater

Do the 'Do

Hairspray teases the dancin' '60s into a blissful bouffant.


An animated cast gets high on that '60s vibe.
  • An animated cast gets high on that '60s vibe.
In the early 1960s, nearly every teenager would rush home from school to ogle the biggest high school clique of all -- the kids known as "the Regulars" on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Each afternoon at four, TVs around the country lit up with the images of normal kids from Philadelphia who looked good and could dance. And even though all the top performers of the day visited Bandstand to lip-synch their latest tunes, the teens were the real celebrities. Actually, it was the world's first reality show, as adolescents from coast to coast followed the crushes and breakups of the Regulars more closely than their own lives, dancing in unison in stockinged feet on the kitchen floor, using the refrigerator handle as a partner.

That vibe is conveyed brilliantly in the musical Hairspray, now at the State Theatre. Picking up the Brylcreemed baton from Grease and continuing our enduring homage to beehive hairdos, the show focuses on the tale of an overweight teenage girl who, along with a whole neighborhood of African Americans, shares the heartfelt dream of dancing -- together -- on TV's Corny Collins Show. Set in Baltimore and based on John Waters' flick of the same name, this production is suffused with the colors and sounds of the era, as well as some of the prejudice that fueled the social upheaval to come.

But in Hairspray, racial and in-group politics are balanced with an innocent story of a girl's rock-and-roll dream, backed by a score (music by Marc Shaiman, who co-wrote the lyrics with Scott Wittman) that captures the uninhibited spirit of those '60s melodies. Even for those who have OD'd on the era, this touring production will lure you back with its energetic dance numbers and a solid cast that frequently excels.

Tracy Turnblad is the squat but irrepressible teenager who longs for a place on the dance show. But her hopes seem remote, since she's more zaftig than the sleek girls who are doing the Slop and the Bop on the boob tube. Her mother, Edna, is a heavy and harried home laundress married to Wilbur, a man half her size who has a whoopee-cushion sense of humor, but a heart of gold. When Tracy goes to an audition for the show, producer Velma Von Tussle (played with vixenish venom by Susan Henley, under a blond Star Trooper helmet of hair) laughs at our pudgy protagonist while pushing her slim daughter-clone, Amber (Worth Williams).

It's not until Tracy meets Seaweed J. Stubbs, one of the young blacks in detention with her at school, that she discovers some serious dance moves. Soon, she's observed by Corny himself and nabs a slot on the show, next to her heartthrob, Link Larkin. But away from the cameras, on the other side of the tracks, she visits the record store owned by Seaweed's mom and learns how much her new friends despise being segregated on the show's monthly Negro Day. With her social consciousness raised along with her terpsichorean chops, Tracy and these kids all decide to choreograph an assault on the show and integrate the televised dance floor.

In the lead role, Keala Settle is a bundle of energy, selling her songs with a clear and powerful voice. But her dance moves don't dazzle as they should to justify her quick ascent into TV's inner sanctum. In the movie, mother Edna was played by Divine, Waters' favorite transgender actor, and on Broadway by the inestimable Harvey Fierstein. In this production, J.P. Dougherty leverages his deep voice for comic effect, but seems a bit too restrained to mine all the laughs. Still, his duet with Wilbur (Stephen DeRosa) is a surprising show-stopper, in light of its tender and unglitzy presentation.

Some of the smaller roles bring the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan to life, even among a flurry of corny groaners ("He's like a half-filled book of Green Stamps -- beyond redemption"). In particular, Jane Blass is a stitch as a bull-dyke gym teacher and a prison matron from hell. Alan Mingo Jr. radiates cool and passion in equal amounts as Seaweed. And although Charlotte Crossley plays his mother, Motormouth Maybelle, with verve, her splendid gospel pipes can't save the racial anthem "I Know Where I've Been" from feeling like an obligatory nod to racial fairness. Finally, the set design by David Rockwell is a major character in itself, employing intense colors and scenery that continually morphs, even during individual songs, to complement the show's fast-twitch pacing.

It must be assumed that eventually this country's strange obsession with the 1960s will pass, like a gigantic tie-dyed kidney stone, and leave us with an overwhelming sense of relief. But that time is apparently nowhere in sight, and frankly, there's no rush, if fabulous productions like Hairspray are the result.

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