If Hairspray the musical is a success, it is because every single person in the audience, even the beauty queens, can remember a moment when they have felt like its heroine, Tracy Turnblad: Fat. Loud. Fatally frowsy.
At a cast party held Wednesday after the opening night performance, members of the production took a moment to ponder how the musical reflects their own lives.
The party itself remained true to its Charm City roots and the musical's spirit. Technically, it was by invitation only. In reality, no one was guarding the door at Ruth's Chris Steak House.
The fare was gussied up just enough to make it feel like a celebration, but it still was comfortably Bawlamer: fried balls of roast beef and mashed potatoes, chicken on a stick, egg rolls. There was a DJ, and the band played golden oldies.
With her chiseled cheekbones, producer Margo Lion more closely resembles a former teen idol than a troublemaker. But Lion said she can't help identifying with the scenes that Tracy spends in detention.
"When I was in high school, I had a lot of demerits," she said. "I talked too much in class."
Wrongdoers were made to do work around the school. "I spent an awful lot of Saturdays painting field hockey balls," she said.
On the other hand, Mark O'Donnell, who wrote the script with Thomas Meehan, remembers a "Cinderella moment" not unlike the scene in which Tracy breaks out of jail and is anointed Miss Hairspray 1962.
O'Donnell grew up in a blue-collar family in Cleveland. "In 1972, I entered a national contest for student playwrights," he said.
"The first prize was $700 and included production of your play. When the judges called me to tell me that I'd won, they said, `We knew you were a playwright because you submitted seven plays to the contest. No one else submitted more than one.'"
Carly Jibson, 19, who is making her professional debut as Tracy, understands the source of her character's unflagging self-confidence. Whenever Jibson gives way to a self-doubt, her parents say something like this: "You are Carly Friggin' Jibson. Don't apologize for who you are!"
"And now," said Jibson, who showed up at the cast party in a clingy, off-the-shoulder scarlet gown that accentuated her generous curves, "I never do."
Mary Lou Raines Barber says the character of the evildoer, Velma Von Tussle, was based loosely -- very loosely - on her mother, who was eager to push the stardom of her teen-queen daughter, a featured dancer on the Buddy Deane Show.
"She was a real stage mother," Barber said. "She used to call up and say, `I haven't see Mary Lou on the air today. Tell the cameraman to focus on her.'"
Moments later, Barber jumped on the dance floor with three other former members of the Buddy Deane Dance Committee and did an energetic rendition of "Let's Do the Twist."
But it was perhaps Helen Deane who most sees her own life in Hairspray. After all, the character of Corny Collins is modeled on her late husband, who died in July.
She is alone now after 55 years of marriage. At the cast party, Helen Deane, who is confined to a wheelchair, sat at an out-of-the-way table with daughters Dawn and Debbie. A steady stream of well-wishers came up to kiss her soft white cheek. The evening was dedicated to her husband's memory.
"Shortly before Buddy died, he told me: 'Helen, we like each other, but more important, we love each other.' "That's something, isn't it?"
Sun theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck contributed to this story.