Promoting Tolerance With Musical Comedy

The Cast. (Photos courtesy of Ken Jacques.)

Director John Waters is no stranger to tasteless comedies for adults. Fans of movies such as “Female Trouble” and “Pink Flamingos” would probably never have guessed that one of his more popular films would be a feel-good PG 1988 movie, “Hairspray.” The 2002 musical adaptation is now getting an unabashedly gleeful production from San Diego Musical Theatre at the Horton Grand Theatre.

1962 plus-sized Baltimore high school student, Tracy Turnblad (Bethany Slomka) dreams of being on a local dance program, “The Corny Collins Show.” After being featured on the televised show, she becomes aware of its racially segregated nature.

While the host (Zackary Scot Wolfe) himself is all for equality, the producer Velma Von Tussle (Eileen Bowman) and her spoiled Corny Collins dancer daughter Amber Von Tussle (Lauren King Thompson) oppose having blacks on the air. Tracy, supported by her parents Edna Turnblad (John Massey in drag) and Wilbur (Steve Gunderson), her best friend Penny Pingleton (Emma Nossal), classmate Seaweed J. Stubbs (Kenneth Mosley) and crush Link Larkin (Nickolas Eiter), decides to become an advocate for diversity on the show.

Director, J. Scott Lapp makes the songs, gags and spoken scenes all flow organically, which keeps the entertainment level high. That’s far from an easy task, given that the narrative is both a comedic throwback to the 60’s and a sincerely relevant statement about students’ solidarity and standing up for what they believe is right.

With such serious subject matter, it’s still impressive to see how well the writers succeed using frequent laughs and optimistic musical numbers. Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book packs in plenty of jokes during practically every scene of the story.

Teens and adults will likely enjoy some very funny raunchy moments, yet parents might want to know that the staging has a few risqué moments that were not included in the 2007 movie version or the 2016 NBC telecast, “Hairspray Live!”

Contributions from Lapp’s design team, including Mike Buckley’s scenery, Jill Gorrie’s old-fashioned choreography, Janet Pitcher’s costumes, and Michelle Miles’ lighting creates an interpretation of 1962 that’s equally ironic and affectionate. Just as important to the retro atmosphere is Don Le Master’s musical direction.

Le Master’s work, along with the Hairspray orchestra led by conductor and keyboardist Andrew Orbison, show off the type of pop and R&B music of that time period.

1960s-influenced songs, composed by Marc Shaiman and with lyrics by him and Scott Wittmann, are far from mindless radio-friendly songs. Like in any good musical, the lyrics in songs such as “Good Morning Baltimore,” “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” and “Big, Blonde & Beautiful” are full of smart lines that help develop the characters and the plot.

A rare purely dramatic tune is “I Know Where I’ve Been,” sung by Seaweed’s R&B recording producer mother Motormouth Maybelle (Eboni Muse). It’s a sequence that feels earned, because there’s a lot of buildup to this serious and hopeful number about racial acceptance.

John Massey and Steve Gunderson.

If a few lyrics might have been hard to hear on Kevin Anthenill’s sound design on opening night, particularly in “The Nicest Kids in Town,” the singing and performances are strong across the board. Slomka, Massey and Gunderson (who gets to play several comical roles besides Wilbur) hilariously depict a family who will do anything for each other. Slomka and Massey sing “Welcome to the ‘60s” in a style that’s very catchy and Massey and Gunderson take part in a rendition of “Timeless to Me” that gets funnier with each verse.

Playing the antagonists to the Turnblad family, Bowman and Thompson as the Von Tussles give performances that are so humorously on point, it’s difficult to dislike them when they are onstage.

The rest of the performers, including Nossal, Eiter, Mosley, Wolfe and Muse, add to the appeal of the tale and, like the other central performers, they croon, dance and act with plenty of charisma.

Hairspray has the kind of positive energy that’s perfect for the end of the summer. Lapp’s rendition of the Tony Award-winning hit is just as irresistible as ever.




[box] Show times are Sundays at 2:00 p.m, Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m, Fridays at 8:00 p.m and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. [/box]

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San Diego Musical Theatre
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