Joyous ‘Hairspray’ in Laguna dances its way to racial equality

By Eric Marchese

Substitute the term “social progress” for the word “beat” in the song title “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” and you get a pretty good idea of what the musical “Hairspray,” beneath its bright, feel-good surface, is really about.

Getting both levels of the 2002 Broadway musical right is the key to any successful production.

Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s script, based on John Waters’ 1988 film, Mark Shaiman’s early ’60s-style score, and Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s lyrics all do double-duty, keeping things light and entertaining, yet also delivering the weightier message that by 1962, American society was long overdue for extending the same rights to all regardless of skin color.

A visit to Laguna Playhouse should satisfy anyone looking for a show that’s a rockin’ good time all around as well as anyone eager to absorb the issues undergirding “Hairspray.”

Director Paula Hammons Sloan couldn’t ask for a better heroine than Nicole Powell’s Tracy Turnblad, James W. Gruessing, Jr., and Rick Grossman as her loving parents, Allison Foote as villainous Velma Von Tussle, or the young actors playing Tracy’s peers in Baltimore circa 1962.

Tracy’s dream is to become a dancer on “The Corny Collins Show,” a popular locally-based TV program featuring everyday high-school teens doing the latest rock dances – sort of an early example of reality TV.

As short, squat Tracy is unlike the show’s nominal stars – lithe teens like Elvis wannabe Link Larkin (Tanner Callicutt) and slim beauty Amber Von Tussle (Haley Chaney) – the odds seem stacked against her.

But Tracy’s an absolute killer on the dance floor, quick to learn new steps, routines or styles in just minutes, and she’s tremendously exuberant and resilient.

That never-say-die nature comes into play once we realize Tracy is bent on seeing young black dancers become fully, and permanently, integrated into the Collins show – a concept facing a storm of opposition from many sources.

Combining something so potent as the fight for civil rights with the explosive joy of early rock music takes a deft hand. Shaiman and company have created the perfect formula, and Sloan and her cast get the most out of it, giving the social issues just enough weight to be plausible. Boosting the lighter side are Michael A. Ferrara’s music direction, Musical Theatre OC’s scenic design and Keith Lambert’s costumes.

All Broadway musical and true to John Waters in style and tone, “Hairspray” is also an accurate snapshot of our nation during its last gasps of innocence, showing how segregation was an accepted, unchallenged way of life.

“Hairspray” has plenty of the laughs we’d expect, but also loads of spirit and heart. Its sophisticated book and lyrics show how teens interacting via dance in a racial melting pot in mid-20th-century America helped form the figurative and literal roots of rock ’n’ roll.

Via the TV show broadcasts, the teens of “Hairspray” joyfully express themselves via dance – and Sloan’s choreography delivers every early ’60s dance step you can imagine. Lambert’s costumes are pleasingly bright, lively and true to period, and the sets are subtly and slightly cartoonish – wholly fitting in that the story’s broad strokes are like a brightly colored comic strip.

The shining focus of Laguna’s staging, Powell’s Tracy is bursting with sunny optimism and can-do gumption, well complemented by Kristen Daniels as Tracy’s dorky yet loyal, true-blue best pal, Penny.

Gruessing’s Edna is no drag parody, but a plus-sized, middle-aged matron with a nasally rumbling and New York-inflected voice whose coarse basic nature doesn’t belie her love for Wilbur and Tracy.

Like daughter Tracy, Grossman’s Wilbur is short, chunky and fun-loving. Callicutt’s Link a basically good-hearted kid driven to achieve musical fame but not snooty about potential stardom. Chaney’s comically shallow airhead Amber is an early ’60s Valley Girl with a superiority complex.

Foote’s slender ex-diva Velma is a cackling, vindictive witch. Jared Kaitz is an exuberant Corny. Jovan Watlington’s Seaweed, Tracy’s new black friend, is hip, funky, and so cool, he doesn’t even need to try, and Dwan Hayes is all sensuality and sizzle as Seaweed’s radio star mom, Motormouth Maybelle.

Under Sloan and Ferrarra’s hands, the musical numbers are immensely satisfying – notably, the up-tempo “Welcome to the ’60s”; the smokin’ “Big, Blonde and Beautiful”; “Without Love,” describing love’s power; and the stirring gospel number “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

It’s “You Can’t Stop the Beat” though, the big finale, that packages the show’s message about the inevitability of racial equality in a classic rock song meant to get the audience on its feet. It’s meant to, and that it does.