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Hairspray’s A Hit With San Fran

San Francisco Examiner
You’ll flip over ‘Hairspray’
By Leslie Katz

For starters, any show about a smart, fat teenage girl who gets the sweet, hunky guy is going to be a hit with the female element of the audience. “Hairspray” is that, and so much more.

The 2003 Tony Award winner for best musical champions political and social causes with cornball jokes, catchy tunes, vibrant colors and a heart that’s larger than the poundage of its chunky protagonist, Tracy Turnblad.

But most brilliantly, there’s not an once of cloying 21st-century irony in this giddy 1960s-era delight, which is based on the 1988 movie by director John Waters, an iconoclast if there ever was one.

The creators of the show — Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote the score: Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, the book — wisely remained true to Waters’ refreshing approach.

In “Hairspray,” as well as in most of his films, Waters’ entirely believable heroes fall well outside of the norm what’s considered pretty. While they may be downright “ugly” by society’s standards, in Waters’ world, their appearance is often accepted with minimal fanfare. It’s an idea whose time has come.

Featuring aptly kitschy sets and swingin’ costumes in a rainbow of hues that would make the Crayola folks jealous, this touring version of the show, which opened Wednesday at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre after a week of previews, easily lives up to the accolades bestowed upon its predecessors.

The infectious Keala Settle plays Tracy, the amply coiffed 16-year-old powerhouse from Baltimore who dreams about her shot at fame, an appearance on an “American Bandstand”-like TV show, and of meeting its most gorgeous dancer, the blond Link Larkin (Austin Miller, every inch a matinee idol).

Happily, Tracy finds lots of support from her queen-sized mom Edna (comedian Bruce Vilanch, adorably making the role originated by Divine in the film and Harvey Fierstein on Broadway his own); her prank-wielding dad Wilbur (Todd Susman), proprietor of the Hard-de-Har Hut; her sweet but dim pal Penny (Sandra DeNise); and her new black friend Seaweed (Terron Brooks).

Hanging out with Seaweed in detention, Tracy learns some cool, soulful new moves that get her noticed when she goes to audition for a spot on the TV show. She soon finds herself in the running for the “Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962” Award.

But things take a complicated turn when, on the air, Tracy calls for every day to be “Negro Day,” and makes up her mind to bring black dancers to the show. The show’s evil producer, Velma Van Tussle (Susan Cella) isn’t keen on the plan.

Director Jack O’Brien keeps “Hairspray” at a flawless pace, its energy mounting from one big, bouncy Motown-esque number to the next. Led by Jim Vukovich, the band gloriously belts out tunes that sound straight from the hit parade of the early ’60s.

Settle grabs the audience from the get-go with her opening song, “Good Morning Baltimore.” She and her cohorts magically keep up the energy in some awesome dance scenes choreographed by Jerry Mitchell: the white folks get down in the high school gym in “The Madison,” but they’re soon taken to task by the black crew on the street in “Run and Tell That.”

You want love songs? Tracy is a riot as she fantasizes about Link in “I Can Hear the Bells,” but even funnier when she gets her man, hyperventilating with abandon as she faces him lip to lip for the first time in “It Takes Two.”

Edna and Wilbur bring down the house with the quieter ditty, “Timeless to Me,” a tune that boasts easy “localization” in this incarnation, with crowd-pleasing references to the Giants and Lombard Street.

Even though so many of “Hairspray’s” outrageously corny jokes come straight from its era (“I’m like a book of green stamps — beyond redemption,” Edna deadpans), the show undeniably has contemporary appeal and relevance.

Isn’t today’s “American Idol” phenomenon more than reminiscent of the “Miss Hairspray” competition?

Even better, when, on Wednesday’s opening night peformance, Tracy steadfastly asserted that “manipulating our judicial system just to win a contest is un-American,” the audience roared with knowing laughter.