Can’t stop Laguna’s ‘Hairspray’ beat

By Tom Titus 

Everything old is new again at the Laguna Playhouse, where the stage version of a 1988 John Waters movie is rocking out for today's audiences and eliciting standing ovations in the process.

The rejuvenated “Hairspray” won eight Tony Awards in 2003, including Best Musical, and it boasts not only sight and sound but substance. Set in 1962 Baltimore, the show comes down strongly on the racial divisions of the era shortly before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Its heroine is the pudgy Tracy Turnblad — rendered beautifully in Laguna by Nicole Powell — who battles prejudices against both heavy teens and African Americans (then called Negroes) — and finds romance in the process. Powell is a diminutive dynamo, championing her causes as she fights for her turn in the spotlight.

Four decades ago, Waters cast a cross-dressing actor, Divine, as Tracy's mother and the role has been played by a male actor ever since. At Laguna, James W. Gruessing Jr. baritones his way through the part, dwarfing the somewhat smaller Rick Grossman as “her” loving husband. Their duo, “You're Timeless to Me,” is predictably, a scream.

 The primary antagonist, a blonde TV producer who once became “Miss Baltimore Crabs” and reminds one and all of that fact, is superbly rendered by Allison Foote. Her equally snooty daughter is well-played by Haley Chaney, while Tracy's cautious young boyfriend is nicely done by Tanner Callicut and Jared Kaitz is quite effective as the TV show host.

A breakout star in the supporting ranks is Jovan E. Watlington as Seaweed, the high-stepping black youth who woos Tracy's pal Penny (Kristen Daniels). Her uptight mom is sharply interpreted by Michelle Bendetti, while Seaweed's mother is a scene-stealing TV personality beautifully voiced by Dwan Hayes, who draws cheers for her solo “I Know Where I've Been.”

Director Paula Hammons Sloan conducts a huge ensemble of young performers who fill the playhouse's large stage to overflowing. Since no choreographer credit is given, it must be assumed Sloan handled that tricky assignment as well.

Accessing the Laguna Playhouse this time of the year can be tricky, but “Hairspray” makes it worth battling the festival crowds and parking difficulties. You'll find you “can't stop the beat” either after watching this splendid revival.