Reviewed by Judy Richter
The musical "Hairspray" is certain to tweak the memories of Baby Boomers and pre-Boomers as it recreates the teenage milieu of 1962 for audiences at American Musical Theatre of San Jose. It was a time when teens danced to the music on TV's "American Bandstand," hosted by Dick Clark, and the girls ratted and sprayed their hair into ever-higher beehives and bouffants. It also was very early in the civil rights movement.
Set in Baltimore, "Hairspray" evokes that era as Tracy Turnblad (Keala Settle) and her best friend, Penny Pingleton (Melissa Larsen), hurry home after school every day to watch and dance along with the Corny Collins (Paul McQuillan) show, the "Hairspray" equivalent of "American Bandstand." The enthusiastic Tracy knows every dance and longs to be on the show. However, she's fat, and she doesn't dress as well as the kids on the show. Her too-tight blouse and skirt (costumes by William Ivey Long) emphasize her weight.
However, some fluke circumstances lead to Tracy's going on the show, much to the consternation of one of its regulars, Amber Von Tussle (Tara Macri), and Amber's mother, Velma Von Tussle (Susan Henley), the show's producer. Amber is even more upset when her boyfriend, the handsome, talented Link Larkin (Aaron Tveit), takes a liking to Tracy. More complications arise when Tracy meets a group of black teens and discovers how well they dance, but they're allowed on the show only once a month on Negro Day. Tracy determines to integrate the show -- more trouble.
Of course, all turns out happily because this is mainly a fun, feel-good show, but the undercurrent of the move toward desegregation gives it some depth in the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, who based it on John Waters' film of the same name.
"Hairspray" picked up eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2003. It's easy to see why. Marc Shaiman's music, with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, bounces along, capturing the sound of the early '60s. Likewise, the energetic, athletic choreography by Jerry Mitchell is well executed by the mostly youthful cast. Special mention needs to made of the wigs and hair styling by Paul Huntley. The wigs alone might fill a truck in this touring production. The flexible set is by David Rockwell, with lighting by Kenneth Posner and sound by Steve C. Kennedy. Jim Vukovich conducts the orchestra from the synthesizer.
Directed by Jack O'Brien, all of the principals are talented and engaging. In addition to those already named, they include J.P. Dougherty as Edna Turnblad, Tracy's mother, the drag role originated by Harvey Fierstein. Like Tracy, Edna is amply proportioned but taller. Dougherty doesn't try to camp the role, but his deep voice and expressive face make for some good laughs. He's well paired with the normal-sized Jim J. Bullock as Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy's father, who owns the joke store downstairs. Although they don't have much money or education, the elder Turnblads are devoted to each other and are loving parents to Tracy.
Also noteworthy is Alan Mingo Jr. as Seaweed J. Stubbs, one of the young blacks whose virtuoso dancing intrigues Tracy. Charlotte Crossley, a powerhouse singer, plays Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed's mother and a local music personality who has her own show and a record store. Everyone in the cast contributes to the fun of this show, filling it with energy and good vibes.