Hairspray, recently presented by Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane University, could be just another nostalgic song and dance revue, featuring clueless teenagers with beehives and saddle shoes, but it's not. The musical, which ran for six years on Broadway and won eight Tony Awards, has multi-dimensional characters living in a segregated city just beginning to deal with difficult issues of race. The show's humor is edgy, but its rendering is brilliant and heartwarming under the masterful direction of Michael McKelvey.
John Waters, the cult filmmaker who produced the original movie, grew up in the blue-collar city of Baltimore in the 1960s, as does Hairspray's pudgy heroine, Tracy Turnblad (Kristin Collura). Tracy cheerfully sings about her everyday experiences — "There's the flasher who lives next door. / There's the bum on his barroom stool. / They wish me luck on my way to school." Like today's contestants on shows like The Voice, she hopes to rise above her situation by auditioning for the Corny Collins Show, sponsored by Ultra Clutch Hairspray.
Tracy's parents, Wilbur (Bob Edes Jr.) and Edna (Sean Patterson), are skeptical of her plan. Dressed in a roomy housecoat and wearing a hair curler bonnet, Edna insists that laundry, not dancing, is her daughter's future. "If you want to be famous, learn how to take blood out of car upholstery. That's a skill you can take right to the bank," Edna advises. Written by humorists Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Hairspray is rife with outrageous off-color jokes.
After skipping school, Tracy and her friend Penny Pingleton (Emerson Steele) wind up in detention, where they make friends with black students who teach them groovy new dance moves, including one that Seaweed J. Stubbs (Polanco Jones Jr.) calls Peyton Place After Midnight. When Tracy demonstrates her locomotion to Corny Collins (Keith Claverie), she wins a spot on his show and a kiss from its heartthrob Link Larkin (Frankie Thams), angering producer and vicious stage mom Velma Von Tussle (Kali Russell).
Tracy also brings progressive views to the TV show, which allows black students to participate once per month on "Negro Day." On the show, Tracy says she would make every day "Negro Day." Tracy gains popularity and Penny starts dating Seaweed, much to her mother's chagrin.
Superb casting allows every actor to shine, and Collura, Claverie, Russell, Thams and Jones delivered great performances. Edes and Patterson were unforgettable in their romantic duet "You're Timeless to Me."
Despite the film premiering almost 30 years ago, Hairspray seems relevant to our times. Many lines reference popular culture long past, but the humor is on point. Tracy and her friends think it's cool to go to a black neighborhood but wonder if it is safe, and Motormouth Maybelle (Jacqui Cross) quips in response: "Now honey, we got more reason to be scared on your street."
Gorgeous costumes, 1960s dances, a terrific set and full orchestra conducted by Jefferson Turner made Hairspray a feast for eyes and ears. As the singing trio The Dynamites, Jessica Mixon, Whitney Mixon and Shangobunmi McAlpine were sublime, and Cross brought down the house.