For all the memorable art John Waters has given us, it will may be the winningly wholesome musical adaptation of his 1988 film Hairspray that will persist in the collective consciousness the strongest. I’m sure this irony isn’t lost on the king of trash cinema.
Hairspray the musical, now on stage at Village Theatre, is a good reminder that art doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to be worthwhile. This is a solid production of a show that drains much of Waters’ edge, but is memorable in its own way, thanks in large part to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s Hairspray tunes. Their ’60s-pop and R&B facsimiles seem to have been genetically engineered to answer the question, “Can having an earworm be a pleasant experience?” A decade-plus of inadvertently humming “I Can Hear the Bells” in my head seems to point toward yes.
The show follows the exploits of teenager Tracy Turnblad (Callie Williams), a misfit who wants nothing more than to dance on the American Bandstand-style Corny Collins Show and see it integrated in racist Baltimore. Her problem of wanting to be seen is the opposite of her mother, Edna (Nick DeSantis), whose shame at her weight has kept her housebound for years.
Hairspray premiered in a tryout production at the 5th Avenue Theatre in 2002 before heading to Broadway. For Village, which is producing the show for the first time, it’s more notable as the final production of Steve Tomkins’ 25-year tenure as artistic director. He co-directs with Timothy McCuen Piggee, in a staging that has the complete polish one has come to expect from a Tomkins show. Every element of Village’s staging has been coifed to perfection, from Carey Wong’s attractive cutout scenic designs to Alex Jaeger’s vibrantly kitschy costumes to Crystal Dawn Munkers’ fluid choreography.
Save for DeSantis’ lovely performance as Edna, which dials down the shtick to showcase the essential humanity of a woman resigned to her disappointing lot in life, the performances in Village’s production don’t bring anything unexpected to the table, though everyone does fine work.
Williams’ brassy-voiced, awkwardly comported Tracy is amusing, particularly in the physical comedy she brings to her attraction to dimwitted Elvis wannabe Link Larkin, played by Ethan Carpenter like his massive bouffant is hiding a head injury.
Charles Simmons and Belle Pugh are charming as Seaweed and Little Inez, siblings who introduce Tracy to Black music and to their mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Shaunyce Omar), who inspires Tracy to take a civil-rights stand. Maybelle’s gospel-inflected anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been” is one of the few moments where the show gets serious, and Omar’s killer voice makes it land.
Beth DeVries and Tori Gresham sneer and preen as mother-daughter villains Velma and Amber Von Tussle, Becca Orts smacks gum as the amusingly sheltered Penny Pingleton, Jason Kappus effortlessly glides as the secretly subversive Corny Collins and the great Peter Crook winsomely goofs off in a rare musical appearance as Wilbur Turnblad.
All of the elements in Village’s production are in place for Shaiman and Wittman’s numbers to shine, and they sound great under the musical direction of R.J. Tancioco. If those songs aren’t already stuck in your head, Village’s production will do its best to begin the entrenching.
Hairspray, with its vision of musical harmony overcoming hate, can feel incredibly quaint. The racism is eminently recognizable; the solutions not so much. But a finale like “You Can’t Stop the Beat” is a rousing—and necessary—slice of optimism that asserts progress may come slowly, but it does come.