Oh, for the days when you could put a person in special education classes just because of her hairdo. That's what happens to Tracy Turnblad, the bouffant-haired focus of the musical Hairspray, now at the Mercury Theatre Company. If that had happened to Donald Trump many years ago, maybe we wouldn't be enduring a bizarrely coiffed, terrifyingly unstable presidency that is more offensive than any of the scenes in the John Waters' film oeuvre.
Waters, a renowned and often outrageous writer and director of films, is relevant to this discussion, of course, since it was his 1988 film of the same name that gave birth to this musical. It is festooned with period dance tunes and rhythm and blues music by Mark Shaiman, who also wrote the lyrics with Scott Wittman.
Waters is perhaps most infamous for the interludes in his film Pink Flamingos that involve eating dog crap and singing buttholes. He has long been the master of puke-in-your-mouth (or in your purse) celluloid moments. But in the original film Hairspray there were no stomach-churning moments, other than the times when Velma Von Tussle popped her daughter Amber's zits with accompanying juicy sound effects.
Instead, it was a trip back to the rosy days of the 1960s in Baltimore (Waters' hometown) when black kids were relegated to "Negro Day" once a month on the local Corny Collins dance show and were banned from the whites-only swimming pool. It was also the time when school bullying was done face-to-face and not over the internet.
Over the past 15 years, the musical Hairspray has been produced by zillions of high school theater departments and community theaters, and it's been vacuumed of most of its edge. Before the current political climate took hold, we were able to laugh at the racist attitudes that are mocked in the script. Now, however, those aspects of the musical aren't so funny any more, since right-wing yahoos have been given tacit permission to let their bigoted freak flag fly. "Welcome to the '60s," indeed.
Anyhow, when overweight Tracy is sent to detention and then to special ed class by her principal for violating the unwritten hairdo laws, she meets black students who introduce her to some badass dance moves. She and her gal pal Penny (Gracie Keener in an amusing turn) are particularly drawn to the sexy step-and-glide of a student named Seaweed J. Stubbs, played with sinuous energy and delight by Antonio Brown.
A fast learner, Tracy turns her dancing into fame (not fortune) as she wins a spot as a dancer on Corny's show, along with an opportunity to bring integration to this corner of local TV. She is fought tooth-and-polished-nail by the aforementioned Velma, the producer of the show and a polished doyenne of prejudice. Jennifer Myor makes for a mean Velma, although it's too bad her blonde hair couldn't have towered a bit more. Indeed, there is a distinct lack of hair disasters on stage, which this play needs to fuel some of the fun.
Her daughter Amber (a nasty Leah Saltzer) is constantly trying to get close with the dance show heartthrob Link (Austin Rubinoski, with a signature blinding grin), but Link sees something alluring in Tracy and her African-American pals. And that leads to an eventual showdown on the tube as Tracy and Amber vie to win the Miss Teenage Hairspray contest.
Despite all the teenage drama, the most dominant character in the play is Edna Turnblad, Tracy's mom, who is invariably played by a man since the drag queen Divine crafted the part in the original film. In this production, an excellent Eddie Carney channels gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein, who created the role on Broadway. Dressed in a housedress and scuffies, Carney embodies every inch of this frumpy woman with a heart of gold. And when she blossoms later in the show, it feels triumphant. As her loving husband Wilbur, Brian Marshall trails after Carney like a devoted pilot fish, and their duet "You're Timeless To Me" is a quiet showstopper.
The reason that song is more effective than many others is that the recorded orchestral accompaniment doesn't overpower the singers. One hopes that they can find a sweeter spot for the mix of music compared to the often-weak amplification of the actors and singers. Many lyrics are lost while other songs, such as the powerful "I Know Where I've Been" anthem sung by Motormouth Maybelle (Kelvette Beacham), only find their gospel power at the very end. But the big dance numbers work well as choreographer Melissa Bertolone keeps the large cast hoofing in unison, filling the large MTC stage with megawatts of energy.
This is the final show of the Mercury summer season, with next season being their 20th anniversary. It will be hard to top this season, which has included fine productions of Carousel and La Cage Aux Folles. But I wouldn't bet against them.