“Hairspray” is a musical with heart and a sense of humor that never wears out its welcome, and the New Theatre production captures all the show’s strengths.
Based on the 1988 John Waters film about the power of pop music to break down racial barriers in the early 1960s, the stage show has a life-affirming, humanistic quality that’s irresistible. The book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan as well as the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman result in a raucous, satirical, poignant and ultimately triumphant musical about the better side of human nature. The air of innocence in this piece always gets to me.
Director Dennis Hennessy has assembled an ideal mix of Kansas City-based actors and out-of-town talent -- the voices in this show are exceptional -- and choreographer Richard Hinds uses every available inch of the New Theatre stage. That’s no small feat in light of the army of 26 actors who have to be marshaled on and off without running into each other.
The design elements make a huge contribution. Jason Coale’s whimsical sets, Vincent Scasselatti’s visually handsome and often amusing costumes and Randy Winder’s precise lighting work in concert to create a seductive make-believe version of Baltimore, circa 1962.
The story focuses on Tracy Turnblad (Lena Mary Amato), a chubby teen whose father Wilbur (Jerry Jay Cranford) runs a gag-gift shop called the Har-de-Har Hut, and whose mother Edna (Jim Korinke) takes in laundry and hasn’t left their apartment in years.
Tracy’s dream is to a get an audition on the Corny Collins Show, a Dick Clark-ish dance program at a Baltimore TV station, which once a month turns the show over to African-Americans for what is termed “Negro Day.” Tracy, the gutsy outsider, feels more kinship with her black peers than with the middle-class snobs represented by Velma Von Tussle (Cathy Barnett) and her conceited daughter Amber (Mandy Morris).
Tracy gets her shot and becomes a local star, much to the dismay of Amber, who must face Tracy in the Miss Teenage Hairspray contest. Ultimately, Tracy declares that if she had the power she would make “every day Negro Day” and organizes a protest march on the station that lands her in jail. The boy of her dreams, aspiring teen idol Link Larkin (Tim Quartier), helps her break out so she can compete against Amber and integrate the Corny Collins Show.
There’s also a romance between Tracy’s friend Penny (Katie Karel) and Seaweed (Marcus Terell), the son of Motormouth Maybelle (Inga Ballard), who runs a record shop and hosts the monthly Negro Day broadcast.
Amato has played Tracy before and it shows in her assured performance. She, like most of her colleagues in this production, has a great pop music voice. Korinke is a hoot as Edna (a traditional drag role) but underplays her in a way that makes her -- well, convincing. He and Cranford, who gets to indulge his eccentricities as Wilbur, make a charming stage couple.
Karel, whose voice always blows me away, offers a nicely executed performance as the shy girl who suddenly isn’t so shy after she gets together with Seaweed, who is brought to life by Terrel, an explosive performer who dances as well as he sings.
Barnett envelops herself in the cartoonish Velma Von Tussle, and Morris again demonstrates her abilities as a comic actress as Amber. Corny Collins, who has the soul of a walking 8-by-10 glossy, fits Seth Golay like a glove and he gives us a wonderfully precise performance.
Ballard, a physically imposing actress who towers over everyone else on stage, pretty much steals every scene she’s in. Motormouth speaks mainly in rhyming couplets and Ballard creates a vivid, endearing performance.
Quartier’s take on the handsome but delusional Link Larkin is nicely handled, and the actor demonstrates one of the best voices in the show. In the supporting ranks, Eboni Fondren, Ayla Glass and Jennie Greenberry easily win the crowd over as the Dynamites, a trio of soul singers in gleaming red gowns. Jan Chapman has some memorable comic moments as Penny’s mom, and Glennae Harvey makes a strong impression as Little Inez.
The songs are written more-or-less in the style of early ‘60s Top 40 music and they work extremely well. The show reminds us, gently but clearly, just how important music was in bringing an end to the era of segregation and allowing a younger generation to view the world in a way that went far beyond simple black-and-white.