Playhouse on the Square's fantastic revival of Hairspray couldn't have been more perfectly timed. John Waters' trashy '60s-era love letter to big women, bigger hair, and rhythm and blues, tells the story of accidental integrationist Tracy Turnblad, a plus-sized white girl who wants every day to be "Negro Day," on the Corny Collins Show, a Baltimore-based dance program for teenagers, similar to American Bandstand. The musical is classic Waters, but the message about being the change you want to see in the world is pure Broadway, and all too relevant in Memphis, where race continues to play such a strong role in our civic narrative. I was especially happy to catch Hairspray on the night of the Hattiloo Theatre's grand opening party, welcoming all of Memphis out to visit the city's first public arts institution built from the ground up to showcase African-American artists. The Hattiloo is just across the street from Playhouse and next door to Circuit and TheatreWorks in the very heart of a rapidly expanding theater and entertainment district.
After the curtain calls ended, I left Playhouse with three African-American ladies who were exuberant and trying to place Hairspray's trashed up cast members from other shows they'd seen at Playhouse. When they told me they were on their way to check out the Hattiloo, I told them I'd been by already and voiced my approval. And in that moment I was also reminded of the many times Ekundayo Bandele, the Hattiloo's founding director, has been asked to explain the need for a strong black theater company in what is clearly an increasingly diverse performing arts scene. Bandele usually answered that in a majority black city like Memphis, Afrocentric content should be available to performers and audiences year-round. He could just as easily have compared the rest of Memphis to the Corny Collins Show, where improved diversity — a once-a-month "Negro Day" for Corny — says less about how far we've come than how far we've still got to go. Although it's set in Baltimore, Hairspray is way more Memphis than the similarly themed Memphis the Musical, and the energetic musical, with fantastic choreography by Travis Bradley and Jordan Nichols, makes for a loving "welcome to the neighborhood."
Hairspray, was a huge hit for Playhouse in 2010. The show marked the company's artistic arrival in its new facility and could have run for another month if scheduling allowed. The fact that the current revival is already mostly sold out suggests that it's still in demand.
Several members of the original Playhouse cast have returned, and their performances are even better this time around. Courtney Oliver is a radiant powerhouse as Tracy, the full-figured rebel who loves to shimmy to the hits and thinks segregation is dumb. Oliver lost her voice early in the run and was still hoarse on Saturday night but in good form.
Nichols returns as Tracy's love interest Link Larkin, a would-be teen idol and featured dancer on the Corny Collins Show. Hip and confident, David Foster is a perfect fit for Collins, the Dick Clark of Baltimore, and Mike Detroit fully transforms himself into the nerdy Wilbur Turnblad. The duet Detroit's Turnblad sings with his ample wife (a divine Ken Zimmerman in drag) is the show's sweetest — and possibly most subversive — moment.
Napoleon Douglas and Caroline Simpson are as adorable as they are funny as Seaweed and Penny, whose blossoming interracial romance sends Kim Sanders' female authority figure into apoplectic fits.
Tickets for the remainder of the run are scarce. If you want to dance the Madison with Tracy and the cool kids and haven't already reserved tickets, you may be too late.
At Playhouse on the Square through July 13th.