Zach's irrepressibly buoyant staging may leave you dancing on air

Arts Review


Zach Theatre Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 476-0541

Through Aug. 28

Running time: 2 hr., 20 min.

Ah, Baltimore – you of the crime-ridden, poverty-stricken, rat-infested streets. Most of us look at you and see just a deteriorating and depressed harbor town. But to Tracy Turnblad, you might as well be the Emerald City. From the instant this appealingly ample Bal'more teen awakes, she's singing your praises, chirping about every rodent, derelict, and flasher with the wide-eyed delight of Dorothy Gale trooping through Oz.

And at Zach Theatre, Tracy does this with so much glee – Brooke Shapiro springs up in bed beaming such that the sun has to shield its eyes – we not only embrace her enthusiasm for all this urban blight, we want a few friendly neighborhood perverts of our own.

Such is the genius of Hairspray the musical: It serves up societal subversion with sunbeam smiles. All the social norms that John Waters cheekily upended in his 1988 film receive the same irreverent treatment on stage: the protagonist who's plus-sized and has a hunk of a heartthrob who finds her plumpness pleasing, the mother who's played by a man and has a husband that adores "her," blue-collar heroes beating the rich, interracial romance, rat-tastic hairdos that scrape the sky, and TV as a force for good! But with the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman providing a kind of candy coating – they're so bouncy and catchy and evocative of the early Sixties, they sound fresh from the Brill Building – and Zach's performers delivering them with such vivacity and cheer, Waters' iconoclastic notions go down as smoothly as M&Ms with centers of sour mash; the sweetness masks the kick.

Now, Zach Artistic Director Dave Steakley is an old hand at staging retro-pop spectaculars – it was almost 20 years ago that he made his name with the hit girl-group revue Beehive – so you expect the musical numbers to knock your bobby socks off. And with Allen Robertson's pitch-perfect music direction, choreographer Robin Lewis getting his "New Frontier" groove on, and performers such as Joshua Denning at their most dazzling, you not only can't stop the beat, you don't even want to try. But Steakley doesn't always get sufficient credit for his deft handling of humor, which is crucial to a show such as this. His crew of crack comedic actors – led by Amy Downing, Christine Tucker, Warren Freeman, David R. Jarrott, and Emily Bem – plays it big but always specific, and they keep it so tight that the gags bounce like a quarter off a snare drum. Hairspray's population of broad comic types doesn't stop Steakley from finding emotional heft in its hefty heroines and heroes, however. A mightily padded Brian Coughlin fills out the colossal frocks of Tracy's mom, Edna, with surprising delicacy, and in the character's duet with her husband, Wilbur – a jolly, animated Scotty Roberts – the mutual affection conveyed by the two actors swells the heart. And when Janis Stinson's Motormouth Maybelle sings "I Know Where I've Been," the bluesy number comes from such a deep and personal place and with such authority, it grounds Tracy's quest to quash segregation on a television teen-dance show in the civil rights movement of history and moves us to recall its pain and sacrifices.

As solemn as that sounds, it doesn't weigh this production down at all; it only adds dimension and depth to a show that's irrepressibly buoyant, that has its heart in the clouds and leaves its audiences walking on air. Make that dancing on air. Hairspray's beat will make you want to shake and shimmy it the best that you can, and you may not stop until you reach Baltimore.

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Hairspray, Zach Theatre, Dave Steakley, Brooke Shapiro, Robin Lewis, Allen Robertson, Amy Downing, Janis Stinson, Brian Coughlin, Scotty Roberts

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