These days, it's hard not to get on somebody's screen, what with all the TV channels, reality shows, and geek fests. And failing those, you can always hook up a web cam and start your own internet show.
Ah, but if you nurtured dreams of electronic glory back in the 1960s, as Tracy Turnblad does in Hairspray, you had to find a way to land on one of the three networks. And that's the challenge that fuels this popular musical that is being given a rousing, spot-on production at the Beck Center.
The creators — Mark O'Donnell Thomas Meehan, Marc Shaiman, and Scott Wittman — took the story from a John Waters movie and kicked it up a few notches. Shaiman's tunes have a genuine '60s vibe, ranging from doo-wop to do-your-thang.
Meanwhile, director Scott Spence and the routinely superior choreographer Martin Cespedes keep more than 35 actors spinning across the stage in ever-shifting combinations. But the central conflict, based around casually cruel racism, is never far from the happy, be-bopping surface.
Baltimore gal Tracy is desperate to get on The Corny Collins Show, an American Bandstand knock-off where cool teens dance and comb their DAs for the camera. Trouble is, chunky Tracy takes after her ample mom Edna, reducing the girl's chances of making the Corny cut to almost nil.
As Tracy, Brittany Lynne Eckstrom is adorably pudgy and has the vocal chops to handle all her tunes. Although she tends to cruise through some scenes — particularly when she's not engaged in dialogue — Eckstrom provides a solid center for the exuberant show.
Edna doesn't want Tracy hoofing on the small screen, but dad Wilbur (a sweet and supportive Mark Heffernan) encourages her to audition. She is initially rejected, with the hostility against Tracy and her plus-size frame driven by Corny's producer, Velma Von Tussel.
When Tracy is sent to detention for her feloniously towering hairstyle, she bonds with a black student. Belying his weirdly aquatic name, Seaweed J. Stubbs (played by a lithe and electric Antwaun Holley) can lay down sizzling moves on the dance floor. And thanks to his funky dance tutoring, Tracy makes it onto the show, earning the festering dislike of Velma.
There are several standout performances in this production, including a near-perfect second banana rendition by Anna Bradley as Tracy's scrawny best friend Penny.
Of course, the marquee role goes to the guy who plays Edna: In this staging it's Kevin Joseph Kelly. Maneuvering around her ironing board in a tent-sized housedress, Kelly hilariously looks like the Isle de France trying to dock. And when Edna cleans up later, dancing in public herself, Kelly has plenty of fun without pushing too hard. Indeed, one of the show's best moments is the second-act duet "You're Timeless to Me," where he and Heffernan croon their love to each other.
Still, in a production with multiple showstoppers, it's hard to top Tina D. Stump as Seaweed's mom, Motormouth Maybelle, when she sings the gospel-infused "I Know Where I've Been." Once you hear this soaring gem, you'll remember where you were for quite a while.
The Von Tussel family is well represented by Laurel Held's snarky Velma and Sharon Pearlman's bitchy Amber. Alexis Generette Floyd shines at times as Seaweed's sister Little Inez, although at some point this talented young performer will have to learn the art of underplaying.
Beck's powerful cast even glitters in small moments. For instance, the three women who play the singing group the Dynamites (Anna Register, Rantea Thompson, and Risa Goehrke) nearly bring down the house.
Less successful is Cody Zak, who can't really hit the notes as Tracy's heartthrob Link Larkin. And Matthew Ryan Thompson, as Corny, never quite finds a hook for this younger version of the smarmy host, who, in touring productions, is usually played by celebrity washouts (paging John Stamos).
Standing ovations are way overdone in our burg. And it's de rigueur at the end of this show too. But this time it's immensely well earned.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.