Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Directed by Dan Knechtges
Choreographed by Dan Knechtges and Jessica Hartman
June 23, 2015
Welcome to Tracy Turnblad’s Baltimore! Hairspray, the second production in the Muny’s 2015 summer season, has been brought to life with style and humor on stage in Forest Park. With a strong cast and stylish, evocative production values, this is a fun show with an important message and lots of heart.
Based on John Waters’ original 1988 film, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy (Ryann Redmond), a perky teenager in 1962 Baltimore. Tracy’s immediate ambition is to dance on a local hit TV show, The Corny Collins Show, which she watches every day after school with her geeky best friend Penny Pingleton (Charlotte Maltby) She lives with her loving goofball father Wilbur (Lara Teeter), who runs a joke shop, and her reclusive seamstress mother, Edna (Bryan Batt) who, like Tracy, is overweight but lacks Tracy’s self-confidence. When Tracy gets a chance to audition for the show, her ambition is initially thwarted by the show’s villainous producer, Velma Von Tussle (Heather Ayers), whose aim to to further the celebrity chances of her selfish daughter Amber (Taylor Louderman), who’s popular on the show but isn’t a great dancer. Tracy is also attracted to the show’s teen heartthrob, Link Larkin (John Battagliese), who is ostensibly dating Amber. When Tracy is sent to detention at school, however, she gains a new reason for getting on the show. She meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Gerald Caesar), a talented African-American dancer who features once a month on the show’s “Negro Day”, which is hosted by his mother, Motormoth Maybelle (Liz Mikel), who owns a local record store. After befriending Seaweed and his family and friends, Tracy makes it her goal to integrate the Corny Collins Show so all the dancers, black and white, can dance together. Meanwhile, her mother Edna is brought along on her own journey to regain her sense of self-worth, supporting her daughter’s cause. Along the way, romantic entanglements, trouble with the law, and the schemes of the self-serving Von Tussles complicate the proceedings.
I haven’t seen the original film, but I don’t think that’s necessary in order to enjoy this immensely entertaining show. Tracy is an extremely likable character, as are her family and friends. The villains are a bit cartoonish, but that’s kind of the style of this show. It’s a show that sheds light on some of the more unsavory aspects of this country’s history, with a message that is still relevant today, but the overall emphasis is on hope, as Tracy and her friends fight for the cause of integrating the show and don’t back down. Everything is big, bright and full of energy, and although the story and its ultimate conclusion are fairly predictable, the show communicates its message of acceptance with heart, infectious energy, and the great 60’s styled songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with modern musical theatre classics such as “Good Morning Baltimore”, “Welcome to the 60s”, “I Can Hear the Bells” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat”.
The Muny’s production has assembled an excellent cast to tell this story. Redmond, as Tracy, has just the right amount of bubbly energy and charm, along with a strong singing voice and good dance ability. She’s thoroughly believable as a dreamer who goes after her dreams, bringing her family and friends along on her mission. Equally engaging is Batt, best known from TV’s Mad Men, as Tracy’s mother, Edna. He admirably doesn’t overplay the role, but brings verve, substance and heart to Edna and displaying excellent on stage chemistry with both Redmond as Tracy and Teeter as the sweetly goofy Wilbur. Their duet, “You’re Timeless to Me” is a sweet highlight of the show. There’s also excellent support from Maltby, a scene-stealer as the quirky Penny, and Caesar as the charming Seaweed, who is a terrific dancer. Mikel as Motormouth Maybelle also turns in a memorable performance, particularly in the second act delivering the powerful song “I Know Where I’ve Been”, and young Kennedy Holmes is delightful as Seaweed’s little sister and fellow dancer, Little Inez. Battagliese gives an amiable performance as Link, as well, the show’s villains, Ayers and Louderman, are appropriately villainous, and Christopher J. Hanke is suitably suave as TV host Collins.
Visually, this show is a nostalgic treat. With a vibrant color scheme of bright pinks, bold greens, oranges, and blues, costume designer Leon Dobkowski (basing his designs on the orginals by William Ivey Long) has brought an appealing 60s atmosphere to the show, featuring some eye-catching outfits for the dancers, Tracy and Edna particularly. Robert Mark Morgan’s set is whimsical and evocative, featuring a giant TV set as the centerpiece, and live video (designed by Matthew Young) during the Collins Show segments. It’s a stylish, visually pleasing production that reflects the energy of the show itself.
Although I had seen the 2007 filmed version of the musical, I had never seen Hairspray on stage before. I think the Muny’s production is an ideal introduction to the show. Tracy Turnblad is a young girl with a dream and with aspirations to change the world, starting with Baltimore. The Muny has brought us into Tracy’s world with humor, drama, music and style.
Hairspray runs at the Muny until June 30th, 2015.