There's no mistaking the inclusive and unifying power of Hairspray, now at Halton Theater. Poor folk, black folk and chubby folk are enfolded in its embrace as the Corny Collins teen hop TV show bops and shimmies toward integration in 1962 Baltimore, propelled by the plucky activism of chunky Tracy Turnblad and her adoration for dreamboat Link Larkin. Yet the inclusionary wonders of this Mark O'Donnell-Thomas Meehan adaptation of John Waters' 1988 film go beyond the action onstage — beyond even the diverse casting of Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta as Tracy's mother, the far chunkier Edna.
Mated with the blithely derivative tunes by Marc Shaiman, Hairspray has unified the generations coming to watch and listen, putting butts up in the Halton's balcony seats for the first time in recent memory at a CPCC Summer Theatre production. "I didn't know what to expect," confessed an old-timer who had whooped behind me all afternoon at the Sunday matinee, "but it was really good!"
Fair appraisal. The energy of the large cast, the drive of Drina Keen's orchestra, the crass costumes and mountainous wigs by costume designers Laree Lentz and Robert Croghan, and the shoo-wop choreography of Eddie Mabry overwhelm the shortcomings of this production, mainly Croghan's pallid low-budget set and the Halton's wayward sound system. If you're like the Rip Van Winkle whooping behind me, not knowing — or caring — that this is Susan Roberts Knowlson playing Velma Von Tussle, the bigoted blueblood who seeks to shield the Collins Show from declassee dilution, you're less likely to be annoyed when she's woefully undermiked in her showpiece, "Miss Baltimore Crabs."
When we adjourn to the funky side of town, Seaweed's "Run and Tell That" and Motormouth Maybelle's "Big, Blonde & Beautiful" are certainly loud enough, but what exactly were Nicholas Burroughs and Stefanie Lewis saying in their blazing vocals? Hard to get upset when our toes are tapping so insistently to the beat.
Of course, I had a somewhat easier time decoding Shaiman and Scott Wittman's lyrics after seeing the original Broadway show in 2003 and the touring version at Belk Theater 18 months later. These lyrics rarely transcend the pop fodder they emulate, but clarity is welcome when Tracy goes gaga over Link in "He Touched Me" and when her mom and dad get sentimental in "Timeless to Me." It's most essential when the tide of Tracy's victory as Miss Teenage Hairspray crests, as irresistibly as "the motion of the ocean," in the climactic "You Can't Stop the Beat."
Tom Hollis partners beautifully with Mabry in directing these crowd-pleasing scenes. His casting is also far more flawless than CP's sound rig. Sara Reinecke is the perfect combination of flab and fab as Tracy, getting star miking with her star billing. As the basso profundo Edna, Beau Stroupe eclipses the outrageousness he brought to Adolpho last summer in Drowsy Chaperone, but he needs more help from the soundbooth, while Kevin Roberge deftly measures the guts and goofiness of Wilbur, Edna's diminutive hubby.
Hairspray chimes nicely with the college grad actors and actresses CP traditionally recruits at the Southeastern Theatre Conference. Lucy Werner and Glen North are superb imports as the Collins Show's alpha dance couple, Amber Von Tussle (Velma's daughter) and the hunksome Link, but the entire Dynamites doo-wop trio — Christian Anthony, Ariel Blake, and Ericka Ross — are homegrown vocalists. Once again, Cassandra Wood Howley is a little too much as Prudy Pingleton, Trudy's best friend — and Seaweed's biggest fan — but this performance is exquisite subtlety compared with the last time Hollis directed her in Hello, Dolly!
Self-actualization runs amok at the end, but I yielded unconditionally to Hairspray's hokey mist of optimism.