By PHIL GALLO
“Hairspray” has arrived in Los Angeles polished and shiny, a sparkling production that floods the spacious Pantages with, to sum it up in a word, fun. The songs, the book and the star have already been rewarded with their Tonys and this ensemble arrives fresh and perky — after traipsing through secondary markets in the East and Midwest — with no dip in quality from the Broadway incarnation.
The dazzling choreography, the multihued costumes, the sets of pastel and neon colors and a score that’s girl-group and matinee-idol pure provide a foundation for several gloriously funny performances. The ensemble executes the intricate dance steps with precision and a soulful strut, making the most of gimmicky but fun backdrops, and convincingly alternating between the moves of professional hoofers and teens at a TV show doing the Madison.
Even the clunky sound system oddly aids this production, making the 13-piece orchestra sound as if it were crammed into the speakers, the way classic Phil Spector recordings did from the period, which is the source of inspiration for songs such as “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” and “Welcome to the ’60s.”
Despite a plot concerned with desegregation in 1962 Baltimore, “Hairspray” isn’t about to prompt any new dialogues on race relations. It should, however, be a case study for legit producers who don’t always deliver the Broadway goods when hitting the road: This company not only matches the production values and perfs, but Bruce Vilanch takes Edna Turnblad in a direction that’s campier and funnier than Harvey Fierstein’s sentimental Tony-winning turn.
The star, though, is never in doubt. Marissa Jaret Winokur is a ball of energy as Tracy Turnblad, a pudgy outcast who fills her time away from high school watching the “American Bandstand”-ish “Corny Collins Show,” learning the current dances and falling in love with the terps. She auditions after a dancer announces she’ll be gone “for nine months.” Tracy is greeted with abuse from the show regulars; Collins, however, sees her as a kid who resembles the kids at home watching and hires her. (The Collins show is sponsored by Ultra Clutch hairspray, hence the title).
As a feud develops with the jealous beauty queen-in-training Amber Von Tussle (Jordan Ballard), Tracy wins the heart of Link Larkin (Matthew Morrison), the one cast member conflicted by “Hairspray’s” key plot points: peer pressure, race and the path to fame. Tracy’s love of “race” music fuels her ambition to bring together blacks and whites on national television, which leads to friendships, legal troubles, a jail break and, of course, a better world.
Tracy’s journey begins at home, where mother Edna takes in laundry and dad Wilbur (Todd Susman) runs the Har de Har Hut novelty shop downstairs. They endorse their daughter’s every move and share an idyllic marital bond that’s touching and amusing.
In their big number together, the waltz-timed “Timeless to Me,” Susman emphasizes Wilbur’s demure side and allows Edna/Vilanch to carry the tune and the humor. Vilanch, whose talk-singing grew more confident through the night, has added new jokes about Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg and Linda Ronstadt to their duet, and inflated the level of camp. Not only does it work, it’s funnier than the original.
Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton (Sandra Denise), is the over-the-top dimwit who bridges the racial divide and stirs up a romance with Seaweed (Terron Brooks), the son of the producer of Corny Collins’ once-a-month Negro Day, Motormouth Maybelle (Charlotte Crossley). Maybelle owns a record shop that becomes a center of integration — “If one more white person walks in, this will become a suburb,” one shopper notes — and sublimely, John Waters and the adapters of his film pose a query about peaceful coexistence that’s still being asked in America today.
Crossley undergoes a stylistic transference in her two numbers, delivering “Big, Blonde & Beautiful” in the brassy style of 1950s blues shouters; in the second act, after the commotion has landed the entourage in jail, Crossley brings a more soulful, gospel-infused interpretation to “I Know Where I’ve Been,” releasing her inner Sam Cooke to intimate a social step in a new direction.
Troy Britton Johnson’s portrayal of Corny Collins borders on the confusing. Clearly he has an on-camera personality that’s big, bold and perfect for the era, though when he expresses personal outrage with the shenanigans of show producer, and Amber’s mom, Velma Von Tussle (Susan Cella), his shift in tone never feels fully sincere.
Cella has the stage mother bit down pat and her finely delivered “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” is one of the show’s funniest numbers.
Brooks’ Seaweed is too wide-eyed at times, but as one of the most visible dancers, he is riveting.
With: Bryan Crawford, Tammy – Lauren Kling, Michael Cunio, Cameron Adams, Bryan West, Joe Abraham, Jacqueline B. Arnold, Gretchen Bieber, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Jesse Johnson, Deidre Lang, Anastacia McCleskey, Nraca, Sabrina N. Scherff, Jackie Sieden, Jason Snow, Leonard E. Sullivan, Brent Davin Vance, Donna Vivino, Willis White.
Sets, David Rockwell; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Steve C. Kennedy; musical director, Jim Vukovich; production stage manager, Kimberly Fisk. Opened, reviewed July 21, 2004. Runs through Sept. 5. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.