Tracy Turnblad has almost made it through her senior year of high school even though her heart wasn’t in it. She sat through more detentions than classes due to her penchant for teasing her hair into dizzying heights and incurring the wrath of the school’s principal. It’s 1962 in segregated Baltimore, Md., a time and place where even a zaftig teen-ager could nonetheless dream of ponying and twisting her way onto a teen dance show and work up enough moxie to actually succeed.
Tracy, energetically embodied by Nicole Powell, is the lead character in the current Laguna Playhouse production of the musical “Hairspray,” which runs through July 30.
“Hairspray” opened on Broadway in 2002 and bagged eight Tony Awards the following year due to its performers, crisp writing, fast pace and uplifting message minus the preachiness too often pervading treatment of social issues.
Superficially an entertaining romp, the show addresses racial prejudice, the tyranny of beauty standards, bullying of those who don’t meet them and bumptious class divisions abetted by commerce and the criminal justice system. Here adults are bigger bullies than the kids.
Tracy’s story begins when she thumps out of bed singing “Good Morning Baltimore,” as an indication of her ambition to become a dancer on the fab “Corny Collins Show.” Bumping into the milkman, she grabs essentials like a can of hairspray and her transistor radio and sets off for another day of “special education,” joined by an integrated crew of high school misfits and her best friend. Kristen Daniels is Tracy’s sidekick, the dorky but rebellious Penny Pingleton.
Scrolling forward and we will find Tracy achieving her ambition. She not only becomes a local celebrity, but a catalyst for social change as she pushes to integrate the dance show beyond its token “Negro Day,” one day a month when “colored” singers and dancers are allowed to perform. Along the way, plot turns provide a gentle history lesson for younger audiences with references to body shaming, mother-daughter power struggles, the sexual revolution and inter-racial relationships.
Will it inspire nostalgia in those who once twisted the night away? Not necessarily, but it makes for a worthwhile evening thanks to a standout cast including Jared Kaitz as Corny Collins, Dwan Hayes as Motormouth Maybelle, Jovan E. Watlington as Seaweed J. Stubbs, her son and Penny’s love interest.
Possessing a healthy dose of camp, the stage production after all is based on a 1988 John Waters film of the same title and the Broadway adaption wowed critics and audiences then and brought Sunday’s Playhouse audience to their feet as well.
In the Waters film, the unforgettable Divine depicted Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother. In this production, James W. Gruessing, Jr. nails his role as the downtrodden Edna, a laundress who has not left her apartment in years and who deftly deals with shrews like Prudy Pringleton, camped up by Michelle Bendetti.
A 2007 movie version of the musical stars John Travolta as Edna.
In the Playhouse show, Tracy’s indomitably supportive dad Wilbur, performed by Rick Grossman, hocks his comedy establishment the Har-De-Har Club to spring his daughter and her buddies from jail following a demonstration for equal rights. Kind as he’s short, he also encourages his gargantuan wife to finally realize her own dream of becoming a fashion designer for plus-sized women. Their duet, “You’re Timeless to Me,” brought down the house during Sunday’s opening performance.
Paula Sloane choreographed and directed the show. She previously directed “Footloose” and “All Shook Up” for the Playhouse. Other standouts in the cast include Allison Foote, as the dance show’s producer, Haley Chaney as her insufferable daughter and Tanner Callicutt, an aspiring nouveau Elvis, who in the end rejects the Barbie doll tease for the girl with courage and a social conscience.
During intermission, audience members forgoing lines to restrooms or the bar could bask briefly under the klieg lights. Cast members invited the brave on stage to learn to dance The Madison. Among those kicking up their heels was Pat Kollenda, an Arts Commission member and vocal performer in her own right.