By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
If heroin could assume artistic form, it would surely be the 2002 Broadway musical Hairspray, an adaptation of the 1998 John Waters movie.
I swear composer Marc Shaiman and lyricists Shaiman and Scott Wittman have somehow managed to slip some form of aural crack into their songs; these aren’t the sort of tunes you leave the theater humming, they’re the kind of numbers pursuing you to your car, following you home and getting stuck in your brain for weeks. Maddening, yes, but a hell of a lot of fun.
Hairspray’s the story of Tracy Turnblad, a young girl living in 1962 Baltimore and whose waistline is almost as big as her unstinting optimism. Tracy’s most immediate life goal is to appear as one of the featured dancing kids on the local TV hit, “The Corny Collins Show.” This American Bandstand knock-off is lorded over by the unscrupulous Velma Von Tussle who schemes to move her equally ethics-free daughter Amber onto the national scene.
Hairspray continues through November 24. Stage 62, Carnegie. 412/429-6262. www.Stage62.org
If Velma won’t allow the plus-size Tracy to audition for the show, she’s certainly not going to let Little Inez, a young black girl, anywhere near the set. Once a month “The Corny Collins Show” hosts “Negro Day,” hosted by Motormouth Maybelle spinning her “race music” and that’s about as much as Velma wants to hear from anyone who isn’t thin, white and blonde.
Because Tracy continues to defy the school and “rat” her hair to impossible heights (“nobody behind you could see the blackboard!”) she’s sent to detention where she falls in with the “troublemaking” black kids. The next thing you know, Tracy and her compatriots end up in jail for trying to integrate Baltimore television … and that’s just the first act.
I haven’t even mentioned Link Larkin, the heartthrob Tracy’s stealing from Amber, the loopy best friend Penny Pingleton or Tracy’s parents; Wilbur, the owner of a joke shop and Edna, a very, very, VERY plus size woman in a role traditionally played by a man; Divine in the original, Harvey Fierstein on Broadway and John Travolta in the movie musical.
The whole thing couldn’t be sillier and the politics, though extremely well-meaning, don’t really bear close examination these days … but hey!, it’s a musical comedy and by the time they get to the third song you’re utterly swept away by the joy only a first-rate musical can bring.
Stage 62 has managed to pull off the Herculean feat of getting this monster up onstage. It’s a huuuuuuge show … the costumes alone, here rendered admirably by Jessica Kavanagh, would absolutely sink a company of lesser ability. Stage 62 not only puts the show up, but thanks to the protean work of director Art DeConciliis the company has an evening of non-stop entertainment on its hands.
What stands out as the most remarkable element of a venture this mammoth is how solidly DeConciliis has put together the production, top to bottom. Under normal circumstances, a company with limited resources (which, by definition, is most local theater) would find strong performers to carry the lead roles.
Stage 62 certainly hasn’t disappointed. Caroline Connell sings like a dream and plows her way through the role of Tracy – her unmitigated faith in the future is both funny and inspiring. Jason Newsom salutes Divine and Fierstein, along with Merman, Garland and Streisand, as the larger-than-life Edna. And Ashley Harmon is fabulously evil playing Velma with unceasing wicked glee.
When we move down into the supporting roles, this is where most companies find themselves coming up short for powerhouse talent … but not here. Seth Laidlaw is a firestorm of precision as Collins, Chelsea Bartel has a field day playing Penny’s wackiness, Camara Rhodes gets to show-off his singing and dancing skills as Seaweed and Matthew J. Rush is an indelible Wilbur, never more so than when he’s duetting with Newsom on “You’re Timeless To Me.”
And just when I’ve run out of adjectives, here comes Michelle Johnson to wipe the stage with her superhuman voice wringing the last drop of blood out of “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Did I mention that Stage 62 also features a full, live orchestra, led gloriously by music director Meagan Bruno?
On top of everything else, Hairspray is a heavy dance musical as well. Normally, at this point, you’d find me looking away to avoid watching a handful of troupers stumbling, with determination, through a few lightly choreographed numbers. But you won’t see any of that here. The production features a huge dancing ensemble, far too numerous to mention by name, but their numbers, with Harmon’s charming choreography, are as every bit as electrifying as the rest of this amazingly joyous evening.