By Judith Newmark
St; Louis Post-Dispatch Theater Critic
Bright, loud and full of sass, “Hairspray” bursts into the Fox Theatre with all the style you’d expect of a show that boasts a slew of Tony Awards, among them best musical.
But sweetness? Well, yeah. On top of everything else, it’s really sweet.
The show opened on Tuesday to a packed house that included its songwriters, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. After the performance, composer Shaiman stopped by the orchestra pit for an admiring look around the lavish theater. He said he’d been there the year before, when he toured with Billy Crystal, but didn’t remember just how spectacular the decor was.
The show onstage had been pretty spectacular in its own right.
Based on John Waters’ movie of the same name, “Hairspray” is set in Baltimore 1962, a segregated city where the loving if oddball Turnblad family ekes out its meager living. Tracy (Carly Jibson), the overweight teenage daughter, loves to dance; she dreams of appearing as a regular on a local teen dance-party show. Not only does Tracy achieve her goal, she leads a campaign to integrate the program. In the process, she wins the cute boy of her dreams (Austin Miller) and gives a big dose of self-confidence to her shy, enormous mother, played by the hilarious Bruce Vilanch.
That’s right. A man plays Edna Turnblad, who is emphatically a woman. It’s one of the many jokes tucked into this show, which delivers its message about accepting yourself and accepting others in a bright pastel gift-wrap of music, wild costumes and laughter.
Vilanch, who as Edna constitutes one of the broader jokes him/herself, makes plenty of others, including a handful of St. Louis references he pops into his big number, “Timeless to Me.” Maybe he got some tips from his singing partner, Todd Susman, who plays Tracy’s loving, loony dad. He comes from St. Louis, after all.
But other jokes are more subtle, especially the show’s tributes to musical-theater history. “Hairspray” gives a shrewd wink to “Sweet Charity,” “Gypsy” and, naturally, to another great show about teens, “Bye Bye Birdie.”
But Shaiman and Wittman save their fondest tributes to the music that “Hairspray” celebrates, the Top 40 sounds of the pre-Beatles era.
The extravaganza “I Can Hear Bells” has lots of fun with pop’s “Going to the Chapel” tradition while it simultaneously, sweetly reminds you of how a simple touch can evoke a world of romance when you’re in your teens. “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” sounds like a lot of songs you’ve heard before. Or maybe, if you’re a teenager or her mother, like a lot of conversations that you’ve had. A Supremes-like trio called the Dynamites – Deidre Lang, Nraca and Sabrina N. Scherff – score with a red-hot number, “Welcome to the ’60s.” Choreographer Jerry Miller comes up with moves that, like the sound, look fresh while maintaining the mood of a bygone era.
Vilanch is a riot, and Jibson’s a dynamo who dances like a ball of fire and belts like a Broadway baby. But they’re hardly alone. Besides Susman, the slick company includes Austin Miller as the boy of Tracy’s dream, a lithe dancer with rock-star moves; Terron Brooks as the footloose Seaweed and Charlotte Crossley as his wise, wordy mom (she leads the ensemble in the big, spiritual-inflected message song); Sandra Denise as Tracy’s big-hearted, tiny-brained pal; and Troy Britton Johnson as the hipster DJ who hosts the TV show. As the scheming blonde villainesses, Jordan Ballard and Susan Cella are too over-the-top to pose any serious competition to a powerhouse like Tracy, whose heart’s in the right place and whose feet are heading there fast.
People sometimes ask why shows can’t just be entertaining, why they have to mean something. “Hairspray” proves it’s not an either/or proposition.
When: Through March 21, with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard