Hairspray Review: San Francisco, CA

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Robert Hurwitt
San Francisco Chronicle
Theater Critic

You can’t stop the beat. “Hairspray,” the ebulliently rocking musical adapted from John Waters’ great film, opened Wednesday at the Golden Gate Theatre in a joyfully syncopated celebration of big hair, big girls, big jokes and big dreams. Not to mention racial equality, all kinds of tolerance, many kinds of love and good old rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s a Best of Broadway offering that lives up to the name, not only one of the hottest shows in New York but still (for another month) the reigning Tony Award-winning best musical. Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s wittily apt adaptation of Waters’ movie — animated, invigorated and gloriously fulfilled by Marc Shaiman’s remarkable faux-golden oldie songs (lyrics by Shaiman and his life partner, Scott Wittman) — premiered at Seattle’s 5th Street Theatre just under two years ago, moved to Broadway in fall ’02 and won eight Tonys last spring.

It’s hard to imagine that the Broadway show could be more dynamic than this touring company that opened in Baltimore last summer. It opened in Waters’ hometown, naturally, because that’s where the story takes place. It’s 1962 — back when the ’60s were still struggling to break free of the don’t- rock-the-boat (or just plain don’t rock) ’50s — and all lovably enthusiastic, chubby teen Tracy Turnblad wants to do is star on the local “American Bandstand”-like TV show, win the heart of her teen idol and end racial discrimination in Baltimore.

Does she? Of course she does. And not just because this is a musical and that’s the way Waters told it. Keala Settle is such an irrepressible singing, dancing, mugging, loving dynamo that nothing could stand in her way. Especially not with Bruce Vilanch’s mountain of maternal care to back her up and the soul-stirring voice of Charlotte Crossley to urge her on.

Vilanch (of “Hollywood Squares” and “Get Bruce,” minus the beard) plays Tracy’s mom, Edna, the role famously created by Divine in the movie and Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. He fills the part as amply as he fills Edna’s barn- sized housedresses and flamboyant finery, assuming maternity without overstating it, hitting his punch lines with deadly accuracy and executing a slow-burn double-take with excruciating timing.

But “Hairspray” is much more than the sum of its leads. It’s a buoyant vision of bright, tight or flouncy costumes (William Ivey Long) and massively upswept hair (wig master Paul Huntley) in movement against David Rockwell’s colorfully cartoonish, fly-in and fold-out sets and Kenneth Posner’s heart- flashing lights. It’s almost nonstop dance, an inspired, ever-changing feast of shimmying, twisting, rubber-legged and quick-stepping moves in choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s ingenious takes on real and invented early ’60s styles.

Director Jack O’Brien builds an irresistible momentum, alternating restful passages with eruptions of unstoppable youth energy from the moment the curtain rises on Settle’s Tracy waking in her bed — as seen from overhead, framed by a gaudy pink shag carpet strewn with 45s and other teen artifacts. Scenes fold in upon each other, carried by the songs as backup choruses pop out of every conceivable aperture in the set.

The songs not only tell the story, they are the story. Shaiman’s Broadway debut — a long-thwarted aspiration while he arranged and composed for movies (some 50 films, including the songs for “South Park”) — is a tuneful breath of fresh airs. The songs tweak and pay tribute to just about every pop style from the years between early Elvis and the Beatles invasion, proto- Motown, country-rock, rhythm and blues, soul ballads. Every hook sounds familiar and almost every one is a winner under the enthusiastic musical direction of Jim Vukovich.

TV host Corny Collins (an engagingly smooth Troy Britton Johnson) and the entire ensemble of fast-dancing teens are terrific in the TV show numbers. “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” is a ferociously funny mother-daughter showdown between Tracy and Edna, Tracy’s pal Penny Pingleton (a comically dumb, awkward Sandra DeNise) and her racist mother (Joanna Glushak, hilarious in several unsavory roles) and Tracy’s unscrupulous rival Amber (the beguilingly spoiled Jordan Ballard) and her evil mom Velma (Susan Cella), the TV producer.

Cella is superb recalling her glory days as “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” Deidre Lang, NRaca and Sabrina Scherff rattle the rafters as the soul trio the Dynamites on “Welcome to the ’60s.” Todd Susman is an adorably devoted, wise- fool doormat as Tracy’s dad, beguiling with Vilanch in their comically tender “Timeless to Me” duet. Austin Miller and Terron Brooks are dynamic singer- dancers as Tracy’s teen-idol catch and Penny’s forbidden black beau.

Brooks sells a potent “Run and Tell That,” with impressively bright, full- voiced help from 11-year-old Kianna Underwood. Settle, DeNise, Miller and Brooks bring down the house on a fervent “Without Love.” Crossley builds it right back up again and soars through the roof with the gospel-blues passion of racial injustice in “I Know Where I’ve Been” that sets up the finale.

Right triumphs. Teen love prevails. All kinds of inclusiveness are celebrated. All sorts of outsiders are welcomed in, all personal types and preferences are liberated. Welcome to the ’60s.