Dallas — A brilliant ensemble and an efficient, beautifully crafted production melded together from several sources created a rollicking, cheer-inducing realization of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s John Waters-inspired musical Hairspray Saturday night at Winspear Opera House. It’s the first collaboration between the Dallas Theater Center and AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series.
Set in Waters’ favorite and fictionalized locale of Baltimore in the 1960s (and based on Waters’ original movie of 1988; Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan wrote the musical's book), the musical Hairspray pokes relentlessly at American culture—sometimes lovingly, sometimes with shots of acid. The targets, all hit with equal gusto, include racism, fashion absurdity, urban decay, fat-shaming, dysfunctional families, and misguided homespun philosophy.
This comical parable of the triumph of dancing and music over discrimination and racism may have seemed nothing more than a delightful rock ‘n’ roll operetta when it debuted in 2002. In 2018, with quasi-fascism and cultural degradation spewing vomit-like out of Washington daily, the quaint optimism of Hairspray can be viewed as either a dark reminder of our vulnerability or an example of misguided innocence from a more optimistic era.
Distressful as our present national predicament may be, Hairspray at the very least provides a moment of comedy, along with a Cinderella plotline of the chubby but earnest teenage misfit Tracy Turnblad, played, sung, and danced with zest and unfailing panache by Michele Dowdy, a veteran of 400 performances of the same role on Broadway. Indeed, Dowdy defines the production with her sheer energy from the moment she opens the show with her exuberantly delivered “Good Morning Baltimore.”
Among Dowdy’s colleagues on stage, longtime North Texas favorite David Coffee very nearly steals the spotlight in the drag role of Tracy’s mom Edna, shamelessly belting his baritone as a tough-but-tender lady who has a Cinderella moment of her own. Opposite Coffee, Bob Reed plays Tracy’s equally earnest dad Wilbur; his duet with Coffee, “You’re Timeless to Me,” provided yet another musical and comical highlight at Saturday’s opening night performance. Cara Serber is delightful evil as the villain of the show, Velma Von Tussle, producing her own memorable moment in “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” with Deanna Ott as her equally unlovable daughter Amber.
Joel Ingram, as the high school stud Link Larkin, who falls out of love with Amber and into love with Tracy, makes the most of his big moment opening night with “It Takes Two,” a tribute-satire of early ’60s Elvis-era balladry. One of the more intriguing characters, Seaweed J. Stubbs, who introduces Tracy to a whole new way of dancing, is played with striking intensity by Anthony Chatmon II; his role also forms the male half of the show’s interracial love interest opposite Penny Pinglton, performed with wide-eyed haplessness by Taylor O’Toole. Julie Johnson impressively takes on three roles as, respectively, Penny’s prudish mom, a butch female gym teacher, and a sadistic jail matron. DTC company member Liz Mikel as Motormouth Maybelle winningly delivers “I Know Where I’ve Been,” the show’s nearest approach to an inspirational anthem. Shane Allen, in real life one of the anchors on the syndicated Morning Dose TV news program, here plays another sort of television celebrity as Corny Collins, the host of a 60s-style teenage dance show—sponsored by Clutch Hairspray and featuring “the nicest kids in town,” with one day a month designated as “Negro Day.”
Although the AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series generally focuses on touring Broadway productions, in this case, the powers that be turned to the Performing Arts Center’s resident theatrical company, the Dallas Theater Center, to produce the show locally. Sets rented from The Music and Theatre Company of San Diego provide a perfect cartoonish backdrop for the cartoonish vision of Hairspray, and fits neatly into the space and ambience of Winspear Opera House. Costumes from several regional companies likewise melded seamlessly into the show.
Dallas Theater Center Associate Artistic Director Joel Ferrell directs, capturing the unique blend of darkness and froth in Hairspray in a fluid staging. Rickey Tripp’s choreography, central to this dance-focused musical, is straightforward and appealing. And, while composer-lyricist Shaiman draws shamelessly from sources ranging from pre-Beatles rock ’n’ roll to gospel to R&B to classic Broadway when he created the musical Hairspray in 2002, the derivations all work together. Conductor and music director Vonda K. Bowling lets each style shine in its own right.
Those of us whose introduction to John Waters came via his early shock-inducing cinematic gross-outs such as Desperate Living and Female Trouble may feel a twinge of dismay that the hero of 1970s trash-art sold out to become the inspiration for optimistic PG-rated Broadway hits. Still, I didn’t expect or miss the themes of cannibalism, self-mutilation, and incest prevalent in early Waters, and will gladly enjoy the uninterrupted stream of great song-and-dance numbers and wicked double-entendres in this production of the musical Hairspray.
» Industry Night, which has discounted tickets and an after-party with the cast, is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 10. You'll get a VIP lanyard and raffle tickets for signed swag, tickets to future shows, and more. Learn more on the Facebook page for Industry Night here; or buy tickets via the ATTPAC website here.