Ivoryton Playhouse's HAIRSPRAY a perfect summer set-and-style

Jacques Lamarre

Three stars

When I first heard that John Waters’ now-classic Hairspray was being turned into a Broadway musical, my hair-do deflated (just a little). The 1988 film was the transgressive director’s first foray into a sweeter brand of subversion. Whether by accident or design, the movie starring a then-unknown Ricki Lake, Debby Harry, Sonny Bono, Jerry Stiller and the director’s muse, the drag queen Divine, became his first mainstream hit.

Encapsulating that bridge era when 1950s conformity started to give way to the sexual and racial revolutions of the 1960s, Hairspray (the film and the musical) benefits from the best of both decades. Blessedly, the musical retains most of Waters’ camp sensibilities and adds a sonic soundscape that is both fresh and period-appropriate.

Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of Hairspray does not stray too far from the production that was first unveiled on Broadway in 2002. Director Jacqueline Hubbard and her team have ratcheted down some of the eye-popping color schemes and cock-eyed design of the original Broadway production for something that lives more comfortably between the 1988 film and the show. This pretty much lands the look and feel of the Ivoryton production in the territory occupied by the second film version of the show, the John Travolta film musical.

The story of Hairspray follows the story of Tracy Turnblad, a chubby “hair hopper,” who wants to dance on the Baltimore version of American Bandstand, “The Corny Collins Show.” After successfully making her way onto the show, Tracy must land the boy of her dreams, win the Miss Hairspray pageant, and racially integrate a divided city. That’s a lot to do for a girl who is routinely detained in detention or imprisoned in Special Ed due to her hair-don’t.

For Hairspray to work, you need a charming Tracy Turnblad as the heart, soul and hair of the show. Jill Sullivan is a knockout. With energy galore that must have her carbo-loading between performances to maintain Tracy’s necessary girth, Sullivan sings, acts and dances with aplomb. She nails the every-girl appeal of the character and shows that anyone watching American Idol, X Factor or The Voice can become a star.

The casting conceit of having a male play Tracy’s mom is a tip of the hat to the original Edna, played by Divine. Since then, Harvey Fierstein, Bruce Vilanch and John Travolta have all filled the bloated Baltimorian’s house dress and “scuffies.” Does the role really need to be played by a man? No, but it does add a subtle undercurrent of gay pride to a musical already wrestling with intolerance toward obese people and African Americans.

Ivoryton’s Edna is played by Michael Barra (currently featured in the hit film The Amazing Spider-Man). Barra makes little attempt to conceal the fact that he is male and, oddly, it works really, really well. He has a better singing voice than most previous Edna’s, is nimble on his feet, and, best of all, has wonderful comic sensibilities. His duet “(You’re) Timeless to Me” with the equally-sterling Neal Mayer as husband Wilbur is a show-stopper. Special nods go out to Bethany Fitzgerald for nailing the part of the villainess Amber Von Tussle and Abby Hart for being the funniest Penny Pingleton I have seen.

The production does have its flaws. Despite several comments about Tracy’s hair being monumental, her ratted-out ‘do is a bit of a let-down. A large screen stage left is a cute idea that routinely draws your eye away from the action. The sound (with no designer credited) leaves some cast members unamplified and fighting to be heard over the excellent orchestra led by John Sebastian DeNicola.

A few roles are under-coiffed and wilting, but overall the production is fun and an excellent way to spend two-and-a-half hours. Tease your wig and hair-hop down to Ivoryton.

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