Hairspray, one of the entries on Nederlander's current Broadway San Diego slate, is tight and hip and sassy and cute and loud and brash and big.
It's also helmed by a local treasure-Old Globe artistic director Jack O'Brien, who won the 2003 best director Tony for this piece (he snagged the same award this year for Shakespeare's Henry IV, performed last fall at New York's Lincoln Center). Hairspray copped eight Tonys last year, including that for best musical.
The play is set in Baltimore, not the greatest city if you're black and were living there in 1962. Racism is an enormous part of this story-frumpy little white girl Tracy Turnblad (Keala Settle) embraces the equality cause while jockeying for position among her bratty high school peers. Hormones rage as Tracy pursues her passion for dance, finally winning a spot on a local TV show. Her feverish determination infects even her tough-as-nails mother Edna (an absolutely hilarious Bruce Vilanch).
But even as O'Brien magically feeds the teen angst element, the text exploits only half the plot. Other great modern musicals-The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story-thrive on their lead characters' gritty, unbridled rage at life. By comparison, Hairspray's black characters are eminently attractive, intelligent, articulate, responsive and as well dressed as their lily-white counterparts.
The well-scrubbed Seaweed (an excellent Terron Brooks) laments inequality in "Run and Tell That," which more closely resembles a melancholy ballad than an indictment of racist thought. Motormouth Maybelle (Charlotte Crossley) takes a similar turn with "I Know Where I've Been"-she comes out sounding like a jilted lover, not an object of racial idiocy.
The book, by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, is adapted from John Waters' 1988 film of the same name. Ideally, Waters (a Baltimore native) treats the race angle with much more urgency. If so, he's found this play's missing link amid set designer David Rockwell's quasi-Cubist Formstone rowhouses, Marc Shaiman's flinty score, Scott Wittman's ballsy lyrics and Jim Vukovich's music direction.
Without more backstory on one of America's most vexing social problems, this play will never summon anything close to introspection. But as a spectacle and coming-of-age piece, Hairspray will dazzle. It will thoroughly engage. It will have you humming the tunes and maybe relinquishing some currency for the CD. I'm listening to the finale "You Can't Stop the Beat" right now, and I'm on my ass with glee. B
This review is based on the opening performance of July 6. Hairspray runs through July 18 at the Civic Center Theatre. $34.50-$83. 619-570-1100.
This, that and why the other?
If director Jonathan Sturch slows down his players' repartee, he'll have a nice "Pillow Talk," one of four one-acts that make up the Hot Summer Madness program running through July 24 at the Adams Avenue Studio of the Arts. The Peter Tolan play has the earmarks of a gay encounter between two traveling friends-it never transpires, which makes actors William Regan and Joseph Panwitz all the funnier.
"The Moment I Wake Up" and "A Misreading of Camus," both by Howard Casner, suit the physical space but are weighed down by shortsighted production values. "Day" is a pretty good Lanford Wilson play, but Hilary White's bland direction provides no new insights into the characters since the show's run at the same facility a few months back (was there any valid reason to do it again?).Bob Korbett's performance in "A Misreading of Camus" is a highlight. Man 1, his gay character, is intentionally one-dimensional-even so, Korbett manages to pepper it with a variety of nuances, and that's important. 619-584-3593.