Realism be damned, Hairspray gives us exactly what we want
What started as a somewhat edgy film by the raunchy and iconoclastic John Waters morphed into a sugar-sweet, much-loved, Tony-winning musical about self-acceptance and the need for all of us to also accept others. Now Hairspray has taken over the stage at the Arvada Center, where the year is 1962, the place is Baltimore, and rotund, irrepressible Tracy Turnblad manages to charm and wheedle her way onto The Corny Collins Show, the teenage place to be, after learning some sharp moves from the hip black kid, Seaweed. Here she can sing and dance with the acceptably thin and white in-crowd; the inevitable mean girl, Amber (who's always accompanied by her scheming mother); and sexy Elvis wannabe Link, whose first friendly gesture sends her soaring into "I Can Hear the Bells."
But the '50s have ebbed, the vigorous winds of the '60s are blowing, and Tracy wants to know why only white people are allowed on the show, with black kids confined to just a single day a month. Wouldn't it be great if every day was Negro Day, she muses. By the show's end, pulling the more timidly conventional Link along in her ebullient wake, she gets everyone dancing together to "You Can't Stop the Beat." And not just the teens: also her extremely large mother, Edna, who, despite the devoted affection of chipper husband Wilbur, has been secluded in their home, dreaming of designing plus-sized fashions but too dispirited and self-conscious to make any effort or even show herself in the outside world (damn, it's nice when the two sing their love song, "You're Timeless to Me"); half the adults connected with The Corny Collins Show; and Tracy's once-mousy best friend, Penny, now all dolled up and ready to caper with her new love, Seaweed.
It's fun being reminded that there's nothing wrong with glamour, artifice and outrageous style. Or indeed, excess of any sort, as Seaweed's mother, Motormouth Maybelle, reminds us in "Big, Blonde & Beautiful": "Bring on that pecan pie/Pour some sugar.../Scoop me up/A mess of that chocolate swirl," she sings. In fact, what stands out as far more subversive these days than the show's sunny take on racism and integration — despite Maybelle's moving "I Know Where I've been" — is its unabashed celebration of fatness. Not because racism has ceased to be a thorny issue, but because straightforward notions about how to deal with it have been vanquished by a reality far more intractable than most people of goodwill realized in the '60s. Still, anyone who reads the paper knows that obesity is a major bugaboo right now. Here we are, with nutritionists warning of an epidemic, Michelle Obama promoting healthy school lunches, and all our acquaintances babbling away about carbs, fat, salt and sugar, and there are heavy little Tracy and her massively obese mother on stage, along with pleasingly large Maybelle, celebrating their bodies, celebrating food — just plain celebrating — and asserting their right to dance and sing and be just as sexy as anyone else.
Director Rod A. Lansberry has staged a very appealing production with a youthful, energetic cast: Megan Kane's Tracy is bouncy as a rubber ball; Travis Nesbitt deploys an unexpectedly gentle voice and presence as Link; Melvin Brandon Logan charms as Seaweed; and Gabrielle Goyette stops the show with Maybelle's two big numbers. There are also notable performances from DP Perkins as Wilbur and Heather Doris as Amber. Jim J. Bullock has illustrious predecessors in the role of Edna: Divine, Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta, and he does them proud. Should your attention drift from the action and the exuberant song numbers (the music, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is one of the primary reasons for the show's success, and it's well-performed here under the direction of David Nehls), there's all kinds of humor and interest in Brian Mallgrave's stylized set, and the costumes designed by Project Runway finalist Mondo Guerra.
It's the genius of Hairspray that when everyone starts cavorting together at the end, black kids mingling with white, Edna bonding with Maybelle and mooning over her Wilbur, Tracy over Link, Penny over Seaweed, you find yourself grinning and tapping and clapping along because — cynicism and realism be damned — multiple happy endings are exactly what we want from this bubble-gum-sweet, lighter-than-cotton-candy and utterly good-natured confection.
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