John Waters is not a good filmmaker by any conventional measure, but he is relentlessly original. His work cannot be mistaken for that of another artist. So what happens when you take his most successful film and make it into a very traditional musical? An unexpectedly delightful alloy of camp and chorus.
Hairspray, the 2002 musical by Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, hews closely to Waters' plot: Tracy Turnblad (Blythe Woodland) is a hefty teenager whose greatest dream, in 1962, is to dance on The Corny Collins Show and—when that dream comes to pass—who realizes that what she really wants is to integrate Baltimore television. Despite an awful book and annoying name-dropping tic, the show is a real joy: a loud, exuberant tribute to loving yourself as you are, with infectious energy and an immediately memorable score—including "You Can't Stop the Beat," by far the best finale in recent memory.
Broadway Rose's production shows all the company's usual ambition and inevitable flaws. Woodland has a good voice and great presence as Tracy, but is too svelte to call herself a "fat girl." Dan Murphy is a lot of fun as Tracy's unapologetically hefty mother, but I wish he had a bigger voice—Murphy is a crooner, and the role demands a belter. Alina Ziak dances too well as Amber Von Tussle, the supposedly graceless daughter of the evil former beauty queen Velma Von Tussle. Opening night lighting was marred by shaky follow spots.
But these are minor quibbles. The show has a great, cartoony set, all wild angles and candy colors, that suits the manic fantasy of the score. Music director Rick Lewis' band is punchy and loud enough to compete with the enormous cast. And the show is completely stolen by the outstanding performances of two minor characters: John "Jay" Kelley Jr. as Seaweed, who showed off a voice as big as his graceful, bass-player hands on "Run and Tell That"; and Lacretta Nicole as Motormouth Maybelle, whose delivery of "I Know Where I've Been" outshone even Queen Latifah's performance in the 2007 movie.
I don't know if Hairspray, with its central themes of body image, discrimination, race and drag coated in a sugary shell of '60s pop, is truly subversive, or just another example of Broadway's long tradition of co-opting marginalized culture for mainstream consumption. I assumed the latter, but as the uncomfortable racism gags and phallic imagery grew during the show, I began to wonder if the show's creators hadn't pulled a fast one. In the end, Hairspray's political agenda, overt or hidden, is irrelevant. The show had Broadway Rose's quite aged opening-night audience up and dancing, and it will do the same to you.
SEE IT: Deb Fennell Auditorium, 9000 SW Durham Road, 620-5262. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays through July 24. $20-$35.