At Venice Theatre, the year is 1962, the soundtrack is rock ’n’ roll, the city is Baltimore, and the main stage musical is “Hairspray.”
“Hairspray” (in case you missed the 1988 John Waters movie) tells the tale of Tracy Turnblad (Alyssa Goudy). She’s a plus-sized high school girl who dreams of getting a shot on "The Corny Collins Show" — a local knockoff of "American Bandstand" — where teens dance to the latest Top-40 hits on camera. Tracy not only gets on the show, she finds true love, launches her career, gets a college scholarship and strikes a blow for integration.
Along the way, the musical makes a message. People of different colors or dress sizes shouldn’t be second-class citizens. Heavy truth, delivered in a lighter-than-air tone — as light as, well, hairspray. (What’s in those aerosol cans the cast was constantly spraying, anyway?) But the after-school-special point never gets in the way of the fun. And what’s more fun than a movie?
The musical has movie DNA, after all. Director/choreographer Brad Wages makes you feel like you’re watching a movie that just happens to be on stage. (As it’s been said, a good movie moves.) The pace never drags in his production. It’s snappy, with excellent comic timing. Under Wages’ direction, the cast fires off the comic patter and dances up a storm — but the individuals never get lost in that storm.
It really is all about character. The source material shares DNA with "American Graffiti" — well-drawn characters — with bold outlines — set against a troubled time that still pushes our nostalgia buttons.
Goudy is excellent as Tracy — the hefty girl who could. She truly sells her bubbly, high-energy character: Goudy’s performance never feels like a put-on. Tracy’s parents (Joseph Giglia as the gag shop proprietor dad and Timothy J. Fitzgerald in the obligatory drag performance as mom) are endearing in a surrealistic, sitcom way. Dick Baker plays Tracy’s love interest (Link Larkin, the Baby Elvis of 1962 Baltimore) with a suitably aw-shucks lack of guile. David P. Brown does a nice turn as Corny Collins, the dance show program’s host. (Turns out, Corny’s not a slick-talking head after all. A heroic DJ — this may be a first!) Nancy Denton and Antoinette Gagliano portray the enemies of the love-one-another-right-now future; Denton is the Cruella de Vil mom who produces "The Corny Collins Show"; Gagliano is the stuck-up daughter hogging camera time. Fine performances, all. The supporting characters (Syreeta Banks as Motormouth Maybelle and Allison Pickens as Penny, to name a few) are equally fine.
These characters come to life against goofy, stylized sets by Christopher A.D. Parrish while dressed in over-the-top costumes by Stephanie Gift. Yes, there really was a time when the beehive was a hairdo. You can see it live, on the Venice Theatre stage! The musical laughs at the past — and laughs with it. It lets you in on the joke. It gives you nostalgia, too. But it always gets back to people.
Flash and fluff aside, the musical is about individuals. They’re stylized to be sure — but you feel the reality beneath the evanescent characterizations. Young, talented black people pushing back against limits. Smiling TV hosts who don’t want to play the stooge. Young women with stage presence who just happen to be a little overweight.
“Hairspray” is a feel-good story that happens to be honest.
And far too much fun.
IF YOU GO
“Hairspray” runs through Dec. 8, at Venice Theatre, 140 W. Tampa Ave. Call 488-1115 or visit venicestage.com for more information.
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