Good morning, Baltimore

National tour of `Hairspray' returns to city that inspired the popular musical

Theater Review

December 24, 2005|By WILLIAM HYDER | WILLIAM HYDER,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Hairspray, a musical set in Baltimore and based on a bit of the city's history, had a special meaning for local audiences when it launched its national tour here in 2003. Theatergoers have another chance to see it through Jan. 1 at the Hippodrome.

Based upon John Waters' 1988 movie, the Broadway musical follows the adventures of a Baltimore teenager, the spunky, overweight Tracy Turnblad, in the 1960s. Tracy's efforts to win a place on a TV dance party, the Corny Collins Show, bring her into contact with the dreamy Link Larkin.

Her crush on Link seems hopeless, but this is a Cinderella story and we know everything will turn out all right. In the meantime, she becomes friendly with a group of black students and works with them to integrate the TV show.

The fast-moving action bounces around among locations, including Tracy's rowhouse, a TV station, a record store, Patterson Park High School and the city jail.

Tracy is played with tremendous energy and enthusiasm by Keala Settle. Aaron Tveit is a likable, good-looking Link. In the movie that inspired the musical, Baltimorean writer-director Waters cast the transvestite actor Divine as Tracy's mother. The tradition is continued in this production. Edna Turnblad, a rough, massive woman who takes in washing and spends her days in a shapeless housedress, is hilariously portrayed by J.P. Dougherty.

Jim J. Bullock plays Edna's husband, the feckless but ever-optimistic Wilbur Turnblad. A bouncy love duet between Wilbur and Edna in Act II is one of the high points of the show.

As Motormouth Maybelle, owner of a record shop, Charlotte Crossley brings a strong presence to the character and a fine voice to a soul number that closes Act I. Alan Mingo Jr. gives her son Seaweed a knowing performance.

Tara Macri and Susan Henley play high school beauty queen Amber Von Tussle and her stage mother Velma as a matched set - attractive, ambitious and scheming. Jane Blass shows Tracy's best friend Penny, changing from innocence to sophistication.

The story of the musical and the movie, as older folks will recognize, was suggested by the controversy that surrounded the integration of Baltimore TV's Buddy Deane Show.

Unlike the quiet-spoken Deane, Paul McQuillan's Corny Collins is a flashy character. Corny is shrewd and reasonable beneath his professional front.

Costumes and music work together to take the audience back to the 1960s. The girls wear colorful flared skirts with taffeta petticoats, the boys sport cardigans and sport jackets.

The title Hairspray refers to the lacquered beehive hairstyles favored by young women of the time. The female performers wear comically exaggerated versions of these, and the men match them with greased pompadours.

Marc Shaiman's score enjoyably echoes the sounds of the 1960s - rock 'n' roll, doo-wop and soul - and the songs benefit from sharp lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

The show makes occasional bows to Baltimore: The word "hon" is heard several times in the dialogue; the set designer conjures up a rowhouse with marble steps and buildings with Formstone fronts; and at the climax, Tracy is awarded a full scholarship to Essex Community College.

It would have been pleasant to hear the traditional Baltimore dialect on stage, but the energetic young performers are too busy singing and dancing.

If you go -- Hairspray runs through Jan. 1 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. (No performances today or Monday.) Call 410-547-SEAT or visit broadwayacrossamerica.com.

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