'Hairspray' has found an ideal home

Toby's has everything tribute to bygone Baltimore needs: energy, humor, authenticity and heart

March 28, 2010|By Mary Johnson | Special to The Baltimore Sun

"Hairspray," John Waters' nostalgic tribute to 1960s Baltimore, seems to have been destined to play at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, where it has found an ideal home.

The musical is based on Waters' 1988 film and features book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan and music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman. It won eight Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.

I first saw it in 2003, before it won the Tonys. I was a fan from the opening scene, which re-creates a bygone Baltimore in all its Formstone glory.

Although Toby's venue doesn't allow the breadth of scenic artistry, Baltimore's unmistakable essence is captured in the solid depictions of Formstone rowhouse exteriors. Leading lady Tracy Turnblad awakens to greet another day with "Good Morning, Baltimore," and soon is sauntering along streets swarming with colorful characters.

Director Toby Orenstein delivers on all counts - fully using the talents of a large, fantastic cast, investing the production with high energy, humor and heart that shines through, using the space to spectacular advantage while imbuing every scene with authenticity of time and place.

Orenstein is ably assisted by set designer David A. Hopkins, musical director Brant Challacombe, choreographer Mark Minnick, and costume designer Lawrence B. Munsey, among others. This production boasts an orchestra larger and fuller-sounding than many currently on Broadway.

The plot tells of tubby teenager Tracy (Celia Blitzer), a Patterson Park High student who wants to dance on "The Corny Collins Show" (which Waters based on WJZ's "Buddy Deane Show," which ran 1957-1964). Tracy fights for a chance to get onto the show and later to integrate it.

Despite her mother Edna's protective discouragement, Tracy not only is chosen to dance on the show, but attracts the attention of super dancer heartthrob Link Larkin. Frequently winding up in detention at school, big-haired and big-hearted Tracy learns some great dance moves from Seaweed J. Stubbs, who is the son of Motormouth Maybelle. She hosts the black dance segments on "The Corny Collins Show" and operates her own record store.

Show producer Velma Von Tussle and her daughter, Amber, the reigning dance princess, try to shut out Tracy. Her friend Penny Pingleton does what she can to support Tracy.

Tracy blooms as a teen dance celebrity and comes to the attention of the proprietor of Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway, who gives Tracy and mother Edna makeovers.

The total package of dancing skills, great pipes, unflagging energy and heart possessed by Blitzer makes her seem destined to play Tracy.

In the part of Edna - a drag role created on stage by Harvey Fierstein and played by John Travolta in the movie musical version - Toby's offers Lawrence Munsey, who fills the shoes with stellar singing and dancing, and even some acceptable Baltimorese. "I've got to finish the ahrn-in" (ironing), although he handles the verb form better than the noun.

Rounding out the Turnblad family is Wilbur, well played by David James, who brings song and dance skills along with some convincing acting for a most touching scene in "You're Timeless to Me" with Edna.

Jeffrey Shankle makes the role of Corny Collins his own.

Heather Marie Beck is deliciously nasty as Amber's mother and Corny Collins show producer Velma Von Tussle, and Jamie Eacker is equally nasty as Amber.

David Jennings fits the role of heartthrob dancer Link Larkin, and Frank Anthony is phenomenal in his dance routines as Seaweed Stubbs.

Playing Seaweed's mother, entrepreneur and host of "Negro Day" is Jesaira Glover, who stops the show with her gospel-like rendition of "I Know Where I've Been."

As Tracy's friend Penny Pingleton, MaryLee Adams wins hearts. Playing her mother, Prudy Pingleton, and a few others roles is the always reliable Debra Buonaccorsi.

There is not an untrue performance in the entire cast, including in the large ensemble who deliver limitless energy and heart to every musical number.

If you go
Continuing through Aug. 1, "Hairspray" can be seen in 8 performances weekly including 2 matinees. Order tickets online at TobysDinnerTheatre.com or at 410-730-8311.

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