Enter, if you will, an alternate reality, born in the mind of John Waters, the noted filmmaker/troublemaker. The year is 1962, the city is Baltimore, and revolution is in the air. Tracy Turnblad (Brooke Shapiro), our unlikely teenaged heroine, is using the power of rock and roll, dance and hairspray to transform society. We refer, of course, to the story of “Hairspray” — a Tony Award-winning adaptation of Waters’ 1988 movie of the same name, now playing at Florida Studio Theatre. Marc Shaiman wrote the music; Scott Wittman and Shaiman created the lyrics; and Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan wrote the script. (I’m not sure who made the hairspray.) There is, to quote the great Jerry Lee Lewis, a whole lotta shakin’ going on.
Tracy, our full-figured catalyst, doesn’t fit the Barbie Doll mold. She’s a big girl with big dreams — namely joining the dancing cast of “The Corny Collins Show” — a Baltimore clone of shows like “Hullaballoo” or “American Bandstand,” where photogenic teens hop and bop to the hit parade. White teens, that is — with the exception of one “Negro Day” a month. Against all odds, Tracy gets on the program and finds two new dreams: winning the heart of Link Larkin (Dane Becker as the show’s most photogenic star) and integrating the televised dance floor. In the process, her mother (Greg London in John Waters-esque drag) achieves her dreams of becoming a fashion designer.
Yeah, of course there’s a message. Racism is bad, along with cookie-cutter conformity and body image decrees that exclude the hefty from any party. (You have to be this anorexic to enter!) We dig. Message aside, this is a really fun show.
From the spirited opening number (“Good morning Baltimore”) to the closing anthem (“You Can’t Stop the Beat”), director and choreographer Richard Stafford and musical director David Truskinoff never forget that this musical runs on raw, teenage energy. Some dancers create the impression they’re exempt from the law of gravity; all convey the sheer joy of being alive. High octane, high energy and high concept. You are definitely in for a ride.
Aside from all that shaking, the actors put in full-tilt performances from start to finish. Shapiro’s Tracy Turnblad is the opposite of a sulky teenager; she bursts with joie de vivre and her upbeat energy carries the show. (A teen with a positive attitude. Who knew?) London is a hoot as her massive mother; D.C Anderson is equally hilarious as her father, Wilbur, and has an eerie resemblance to Joe. E. King. Speaking of resemblances, Patrick Connaghan’s Corny Collins recalls a young David Byrne. Becker’s Larkin is a satiric wink to the scores of heartthrobs in early 60s teen movies. Alaina Mills (Amber Von Tussle) and Sarah Joy Ledtke (Velma Von Tussle) are hilarious as the two heavies in the piece; a daughter with heart of platinum and a mother resembling Cruella DeVille with big hair, respectively. Jennifer Fouché puts in a powerful performance as Motormouth Maybell (the “Negro Day” host) and she has a powerhouse voice to match.
Melvin Brandon Logan moves and groves as her son, Seaweed. According to federal law, every rock and roll musical requires a wallflower who cuts loose: the winning Lindsay Nantz is definitely up to the job.
Stephen Hope (the man of a thousand funny faces) fills in as various showbiz types authority figures.
Director and choreographer Richard Stafford approaches “Hairspray” like it’s one big dance party — which, of course, it is. On the score of the score, Wittman and Shaiman’s tunes are a pitch-perfect homage to pre-Beatles soul, R&B and rock and roll. Musical director David Truskinoff blasts the music out at you in a richly textured wall of sound. Isabel and Morah Curley-Clay’s sets have a similar effect on the eyes: Baltimore in living color, as seen on an early color TV. Nicole Wee’s costumes are never uniform. This is a show about individuality, after all. Nice touch. Moving on to big hair, Gerard Kelly’s lofty, architectonic wigs recall Marie Antoinette at the height of her cake-eating decadence.
It adds up to a night of feel-good fun. Now pardon a serious note …
The specter at my mental banquet wonders if this alternate reality has any connection to ours. Does the liberation of personal style lead to political liberation? (For extra credit, read Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s “Nation of Rebels” and discuss.) My mental jury’s still out on that one.
But there’s still a world of conformists out who still seem deeply threatened by anyone who doesn’t fit the mold — and seem deeply disturbed at the thought of anyone having too much fun.
That tells you something, doesn’t it?
IF YOU GO
“Hairspray” runs through Jan. 11, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, 1247 First St., Sarasota. Call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org for more information.