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A Stiff One

Hairspray is a giddy, goofy treat at Playhouse on the Square

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John Waters hates musicals and that may be why his musical adaptation of his movie Hairspray — a show that took home eight Tonys, including Best Musical, in 2002 — doesn't suck a bit. From the sunny hello of "Good Morning Baltimore" to Tracy Turnblad's top bow, Hairspray the musical is a giddy blast of pure big-haired joy with a playful rhythm and blues-inspired soundtrack. With his adaptation of Hairspray, the infamously scatological filmmaker, whom William S. Burroughs described as the Pope of Trash, has built a better musical, and Playhouse on the Square guest director Shorey Walker and an able cast led by Courtney Oliver are genuflecting in all the right places.

"It's not preaching to the converted," Waters told the Flyer in 2004, explaining why he thought his film was his most subversive contribution to date. "Here's a movie that teaches people to be chubby-chasers," he said, cackling a bit at his own mad genius. "It encourages teenage integration in dating. It encourages men to be married and have a functional marriage ... [and] everybody knows that [Mrs. Turnblad] is a man [in drag]. All of those things are really exciting if you can make them appeal to a whole family." And Hairspray, with its beautifully oversized moral about inclusion, has some real family appeal. It's also a turning-point show for Playhouse on the Square.

With Hairspray, the Playhouse team finally seems to feel at home in its new state-of-the-art facility. Although Pippin and Oliver! had their moments, it was clear in both cases that everybody on board still had a lot to learn. Not so with Hairspray, which is confident, brash in its goofiness, and as tasty as a deep-fried Baltimore crab cake.

Walker, whose previous visits to Playhouse on the Square have resulted in dynamic productions of shows ranging from The Wizard of Oz to The Who's Tommy, has assembled an exceptional cast. It's exciting to see Oliver back on stage after many years of working behind the scenes as a director and choreographer, especially in the role of Tracy Turnblad, a full-figured rebel who loves to shimmy to the hits and wants every day to be Negro Day on the Corny Collins dance show. Oliver has always been a smart actor with a rebellious streak, but until now she's never been cast in a role that let her show off everything she's got.

David Foster could sleepwalk through the show as Corny Collins, the Dick Clark of Baltimore, but Foster, a standout in Circuit's recent revival of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, appears to be having the best time he's had in ages. The lanky Matt Reed looks like underground cartoonist R. Crumb, and as Mr. Turnblad, the heartfelt duet he sings with his ample wife (an endearing Ken Zimmerman in drag) may be the sweetest twisted moment in this sweetly twisted show.

Jackie Murray rhymes with good reason as Negro Day host Motormouth Maybelle, while Carla McDonald and Whitney Brannan are hilariously vile as the Von Tussles, a blond team of mother/daughter bigots who want to keep The Corny Collins Show white. The show's best laughs belong to Laura Stracko's Penny Pingleton, the tightly wound misfit who falls for Maybelle's son Seaweed Stubbs (Karlos Nichols).

Hairspray also marks a top-form return to the stage for Jordan Nichols, who was sideline by unexpected heart surgery earlier this year. Nichols' Link Larkin is a dreamy Elvis-inspired chubby-chaser, and his scenes with Oliver play out like lost footage from the weirdest Frankie & Annette film ever.

Having seen Memphis, which won the Tony for Best Musical 2010, I was surprised by how much that show's plot owes to Hairspray. Both musicals turn on interracial relationships and climax with an attempt to integrate a teenage dance show. While Memphis, set in the mid-1950s, is grittier and more sincere, the cartoonish Hairspray, with its sunny "welcome to the '60s" facade, is ultimately a more complex take on how things actually go down.

This show does come with one warning for those on the front row. Those cans of hairspray on stage are loaded. Be prepared to get a snoot full.

Through July 25th

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