Big Hair at the Barricades
Hairspray at The Legacy all July
From its magical and jaw-dropping opening moment to the finale that had the audience on its feet cheering, Hairspray at the Legacy Theatre reinvents the delights of old-fashioned musical comedy without seeming old-fashioned.
Hairspray is a sweet, infectious bubblegum-flavored confection with a cartoon story line and a surprisingly deep message. This inventive production, with a nearly flawless cast under the direction of Scott Richardson, with choreography by Susan Collier, finds the right balance of delirious goofiness with a sprinkling of sincerity.
It’s Baltimore, 1962. A plus-sized, big-haired teenager named Tracy Turnblad dreams of dancing on the local teenage TV dance program, “The Corny Collins Show.” After learning a few dance moves from her new black friends, Tracy’s wish comes true and she gains instant local celebrity, and with her newfound fame plans to integrate the “Corny Collins Show” and win the love of its heartthrob star. What she doesn’t want to be is slimmer.
Hairspray was a smash on Broadway in 2002, and this Legacy Theatre production should be as well. The musical derives from the 1988 motion picture Hairspray, by John Waters, the cult-film Bard of Baltimore.
Waters rose to fame (or infamy) for his transgressive filmmaking, a joyful, campy, grotesque combination of highbrow art film and sleazy exploitation movies. Waters’ muse was the outsized, outrageous cross-dressing performer known as Divine.
While his early work truly shocks, there is an underlying sense of kindness – yes, good old-fashioned kindness – in all that John Waters does. He has a genuine affection for humanity in all its strangeness.
The attempted integration of the “The Corny Collins Show” is based on a real Baltimore event, and in putting it on screen Waters, as he described it to the New York Times, “almost accidentally made a family movie about it all.” The man known for shock and disgust decided, “If we were going to surprise anybody it would be with wholesomeness.”
But when the musical opened almost 17 years ago some reviewers found the message of racial harmony passé. Today, ethnic and racial tensions simmer and boil. Questions of identity are ever-present and we are beginning to understand how the complex, cumulative effects of different forms of discrimination (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) combine and overlap in the experiences of marginalized people or groups. With intersectionality the word of the day, there is something refreshing about putting a plus-sized young woman and her double-plus-sized (and cross-dressed) mother at the center of a big, joyous, crazy-quilt musical about desegregation.
Ball of fire Ainsley Chandler is wonderful as Tracy Turnblad. As her mother, Edna, Ed MacMurdo shows us a complex woman, yearning to be set free. The engaging charmer Greg Floyd as her husband is terrific, and their music-hall-style love duet brings the house down.
Tiffany Williams is outstanding as Motormouth Maybelle, hostess of the once-a-month “Negro day” on the “Corny” show. Matt Woodson is period perfect as Corny himself. Jeremiah Brown, as the heartthrob Link, is a delightful partner to Ms. Chandler’s Tracy.
Caroline McKinzie plays Tracy’s rival for Link, Amber Von Tussle, to the snotty hilt. Kristy Cameron plays her mother, Velma, (producer of the “Corny” TV show) with manically prim nastiness.
Samantha Mool as Tracy’s mousy friend, Penny Pingleton, undergoes a remarkable transformation after becoming romantically involved with Motormouth’s son, Seaweed (the self-assured and multitalented Squire Prince). The young charmer Sydney Williams as Little Inez deserves special mention.
The outrageous costumes are by Mary McDonald and Betty Ring, with over-the-top wigs by Tammy Dinora. Musically, Hairspray is a nonstop dance party, and with vocal direction by Judy Denton and music direction by Tyler Maul, things never stop swinging.
Hairspray at The Legacy is great entertainment. And if you aren’t on your feet and cheering during the finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” there just might be something wrong with you.
Hairspray continues July 10-14 with performances Wednesday through Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 2 through July 28. No performances over the July 4 weekend.
The Legacy Theatre, 101 E. Lawrence Ave. www.atthelegacy.com.
Dennis Thread is a freelance writer/filmmaker/creative director with experience on Broadway, television, opera, documentaries, and in corporate and institutional communications. He is a recently returned Springfield native.