Remember John Waters, the guy made famous by his 1972 indie-shocker Pink Flamingos? The film was rated NC-17 because of a "wide range of perversions" -- it features, among other unspeakables, the magnificent 350-pound transvestite Divine chowing down on dog shit.
Well, my friends, John Waters is nothing if not surprising. Fast-forward some 30 years, and the indie-iconoclast is now at least partially responsible for one of the biggest Broadway hits of the new millennium, Hairspray. His film of the same name has been transformed into a Tony Award-winning musical by scriptwriters Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. And here's the biggest shocker of all: The show about a big-hearted, big-bottomed Baltimore girl, now running at the Hobby Center, is about as family-friendly as they come.
Teenage girl-wonder Tracy Turnblad (Keala Settle) is everything a musical heroine ought to be. Living in 1962 Baltimore, Tracy believes everyone ought to have a chance to strut their stuff. When The Corny Collins Show announces auditions for a new dancer, Tracy gets in line. No matter that she's bigger than anyone else on the show, Tracy loves to dance. And when she kicks up her heels, it's clear she knows how to shake her booty. Best of all, if Tracy lands a spot on the show, she'll be near the hottie of her dreams, Link Larkin (Austin Miller), a dancing star.
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Good thing for Tracy that she gets slammed into school detention, where she meets a boy named Seaweed J. Stubbs (Alan Mingo Jr.). He's as smooth as they come on the dance floor, and he teaches Tracy everything he knows. But he can't even dream of going on the TV show because Corny Collins isn't integrated. And the evil producer Velma Von Tussle (Susan Cella) wants to keep it that way. Of course, once Tracy gets on the show, the teenager fights for justice. She even goes to jail for her principles before everything turns out just the way it should.
The upbeat story about a girl who becomes a dancing queen as she falls in love and integrates a TV show drips honeyed charm. In fact, it's so sweet, it ought to give anyone who sees it a toothache. Yet it doesn't.
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Teasing out why this story works in spite of itself isn't all that hard. With its rhythm-and-blues rock and roll beats from the early '60s, the bubbly, bouncing score by Marc Shaiman captures an infectious moment in musical history. Even better, that sound is all oomphed up in big Broadway style with witty lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, which work especially well in songs like "Good Morning Baltimore" and "I Can Hear the Bells." You want to tap your toes and nod your head to the beat even as your heart swells from all the oversize emotion.
And though the show is as sincere as they come, it's also infused with a winning cheekiness. Mechanical rats run around Tracy's feet as she walks through dirty Baltimore. A girl group much like the Supremes steps out of its sidewalk poster to serenade her. And, of course, there's all that fabulous hair; by the show's end, everyone's tresses are teased to the rafters.
The wonderfully winning cast is directed with effervescent charm by Jack O'Brien. Settle's Tracy radiates with adolescent confidence as she charges through the world. And the woman can sing the mountains down. Her voice is huge. As Tracy's gangly best friend Penny Pingleton, Chandra Lee Schwartz is a riot of a teenage klutz. All elbows and big feet, Penny is the best pal a girl could want. Stephen DeRosa makes Tracy's goofy dad the perfect, big-eared, skinny foil to John Pinette's enormous baritone-voiced Edna. Always played by a man in drag, Edna is the baked-bread, warm-afghan heart at the center of the show, and Pinette is perfectly charming as the tender mom who raised such a wonderful girl as Tracy. Also terrific is Joanna Glushak, who plays three small yet unforgettable characters who torment Tracy, most notably a sadistic jail matron.
The show is steeped in the kind of irresistible sweetness that comes with big fluffy cones of pink cotton candy. But though Waters's movie has been turned into a heartwarming bundle you could take your grandmother to, it still retains a hint of the iconoclastic spirit present in all Waters's work. In 2002, he told The New York Times, "the real reason I'm praying that Hairspray, the Broadway musical based on my 1988 movie, succeeds is that if it's a hit, there will be high school productions, and finally the fat girl and the drag queen will get the starring parts."