Is it possible for a show to be campy and cool?
“Hairspray,” which is playing at the New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park, proves that a drag-inspired musical with a good message is something we all need, especially during these racially charged times. (And how ironic that the show is set in Baltimore, but in the early 1960s.)
A plea for justice and racial integration can be delivered with catchy tunes, The Frug and a platter full of soul, rhythm and blues.
Based on John Waters’ 1988 movie, “Hairspray” (by far his most wholesome movie), the 2002 Broadway musical won eight Tony awards and ran for more than 2,500 performances. (Who can forget the inimitable Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad?) It also was made into a successful movie in 2007 with an all-star cast, including John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, and Nikki Blonsky.
This superb production of “Hairspray” is, first and foremost, a blast of Peter Max psychedelic colors, lights and patterns. It’s irresistibly fun and upbeat.
The story revolves around Tracy Turnblad, a spirited girl with big hair and a zaftig build, who dreams about dancing on the “The Corny Collins Show,” which is a Baltimore-based dance program similar to Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” When she realizes that the show is not integrated, she takes it upon herself to break down racial barriers.
Lena Mary Amato, who plays Tracy, is a teenager with unbridled energy, an appealing voice and smooth dance moves. Her slightly nasal delivery of “Good Morning Baltimore” and “I Can Hear the Bells” is endearing. Veteran Kansas City actor Jim Korinke is Tracy’s agoraphobic, overweight mother Edna Turnblad, and he hams it up to the max, mincing across the stage.
Another of Kansas City’s favorite actresses, Cathy Barnett, is tremendous as the racist and villainous Velma Von Tussle, who produces “The Corny Collins Show” and tirelessly promotes her vain, superficial daughter Amber, the show’s lead dancer. Barnett’s lush voice always resonates. Tim Quartier is Link Larkin, the hot boy dancer and Elvis wanna-be, whom Tracy pines for. One could almost hear the women in the audience sighing over Quartier’s sweet, sexy performance. Seth Golay as Corny Collins is convincing as an early ’60s television personality.
One of the standout numbers is “Welcome to the ’60s,” with its girl group harmonies and nonstop go-go dancing. And Melody Betts as Motormouth Maybelle delivers an absolutely heartrending version of “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
Director Dennis D. Hennessy brought his theatrical magic to this production, but special recognition goes to Richard J. Hinds for the exceptional choreography. Scenic designer Jason Coale created a trippy, candy-coated, urban setting, but his renditions of authentic album covers and pin-up posters were especially eye-catching.
Costume design by Vincent Scassellati ranged from vintage “Mad Men” styles to over-the-top sequined and feathered dresses a la Bob Mackie.
At the end, the audience grooved to the memorable “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” an anthem to a collective positive outlook on important social changes. As Tracy Turnblad showed us, we all need to do what’s right and go through that front door.