Hairspray

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Christopher Mueller
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Editorial Review

‘Hairspray’: A dance party that rarely puts a foot wrong

By Celia Wren
Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011

Never try to beat actress Carolyn Cole in a klutzy-daze competition. Early on in Signature Theatre's zesty, aerosol-buoyant "Hairspray," Cole's character, Tracy Turnblad, a full-figured 1960s teenager with audacious dreams, bumps into a boy she has a crush on. For an enjoyably drawn-out series of beats, the young woman in the plaid skirt and Peter-Pan-collared blouse looks stunned. Her eyes glaze over; she sways; she stutters some rapt, incoherent words. A less confident performer, and a less confident production, might abbreviate the moment, but this "Hairspray" is, for the most part, as poised and glossy as a bleached-blond beehive, and Cole teases out the gag until it shimmers with endearing kookiness.

Such assured, funny artistry more or less pervades this incarnation of "Hairspray," the 2002 musical with a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Staged by Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, with Jon Kalbfleisch handling music direction on the infectious period-inspired numbers, the production is (Tracy's dazed epiphany aside) zippily paced and highly kinetic, thanks in part to witty choreography. Evoking and building on 1960s dance fads, choreographers Karma Camp and Brianne Camp have created a body of capering, whimsically gestural movement that epitomizes the youthful ebullience of Tracy and her peers.

After all, "Hairspray," which is based on John Waters's movie of the same title, is a Cinderella story in which the fairy godmother is dance, while the ready-to-blossom scullery maids include Tracy, her plus-size mother, Edna, and, oh, yes, 1962 Baltimore. When Tracy's high-spirited hoofin' earns her a slot on "The Corny Collins Show," she finds herself struggling to reform the televised dance program's racially segregated format. It would be a plus if she could also snag the affection of teenage dreamboat Link Larkin.

In a casting coup that has generated media buzz, Schaeffer has snagged radio and television celebrity Robert Aubry Davis to play Edna Turnblad. Known for hosting WETA's "Around Town," among other credits, Davis certainly deserves a good-sport award for daring to act, sing and dance in Edna's wig, support stockings and tentlike dresses. But he's a bit of a drag on the production's stylish exuberance: In Act I, especially, he looks awkward, and tends to deliver all his lines with the same swooping intonations and flapping hand gestures. One longs for a performer who could turn the role into an vibrant, idiosyncratic comic engine - as it was in the original Broadway version, when Harvey Fierstein played Edna.

Otherwise, the cast is hard to fault, from Cole (who can nail a song, as well as a bit of shtick) right down to the accomplished ensemble. Lauren Williams is particularly hilarious as Penny Lou Pingleton, Tracy's nerdy, pigtailed best friend, who discovers her inner femme fatale after meeting Seaweed J. Stubbs (James Hayden Rodriguez), a boy from the other side of the tracks. Erin Driscoll and Sherri L. Edelen burnish comic villainy to a fine sheen in the roles of the Von Tussles - Amber, Link's mean, glamorous girlfriend, and Velma, Amber's mean, glamorous TV-producer mom. Patrick Thomas Cragin gives Link the right too-sexy-to-smile demeanor.

Nova Y. Payton brings pizazz and terrific vocals to the part of quirky TV host Motormouth Maybelle, making "I Know Where I've Been," an anthem with overtones of the civil rights movement, among the most stirring numbers in the show. Matt Conner is droll in several small roles, including that of a hair spray magnate, and Harry A. Winter - seen in Groucho Marx glasses, a banana suit and other novelty outfits - lends a disarming joviality to Tracy's father, Wilbur, a joke-store entrepreneur.

Setting all the jaunty humor in high relief is Daniel Conway's smart set: a blue-toned tenement-and-warehouse facade that hints at gritty urban reality, subtly underscoring the wish-fulfillment aspect of the story. (The nine-piece orchestra is tucked away on the structure's upper level.) The indigo color scheme gives visual pop to Kathleen Geldard's delectable period costumes, which favor pink and peach tones. Further filigreed by Colin K. Bills's lighting, the world of "Hairspray" seems more than ever a candy-colored fantasy: something that Tracy Turnblad might dream up while snacking on Atomic Fireballs and Pixy Stix.

And who wouldn't want to woolgather right along with her?

More than big ’dos and dancing

By Lavanya Ramanathan

Friday, Nov 18, 2011

To prepare for the role of a lifetime, Robert Aubry Davis is eating more like a woman. This, as he describes it, means he has been sipping smoothies and picking at salads. The inveterate radio personality is also moving more like a woman, working a little shimmy into his size 14EE step.

The strange version of Method acting is all so Davis might believably fill the pink dancing shoes of one Edna Turnblad, plus-size Baltimore matriarch of the musical "Hairspray."

Six-foot-something with a self-described "portly" shape, Davis will certainly cut the right figure on stage next week when the curtains open on "Hairspray," Signature Theatre's latest musical. But while Davis has played Oscar Wilde and provided voice-overs for such plays as Studio Theatre's 2009 show "Solid Gold Cadillac," he has never sung and danced for a crowd of hundreds, and now he's committed to doing both, sometimes wearing a wig studded with rollers.

"It's really not what I do, at all," Davis confesses jovially over lunch recently with Carolyn Cole, the tiny spitfire who will play his onstage daughter, Tracy Turnblad. "I kept saying, 'I don't sing, I don't dance, and this is the single most insane thing you've ever done.' "

"He grossly underestimates himself," Cole, a Washington newcomer, offers in her chirpy, Bawwston-inflected voice (it could be a ringer for Kristin Chenoweth's). "He was so nervous . . . and I was like, 'So am I! This is a big deal!' But you can't do poorly in this show. It's so fun. Everything that comes out of your mouth is hilarious. Every which way you move your feet is hilarious."

Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer is equally unfazed by Davis's protests. Fresh off a run directing the likes of Bernadette Peters on Broadway in "Follies," Schaeffer is at the helm of "Hairspray," which he had long wanted to land for the Shirlington theater. Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's big-haired 2002 Broadway show, inspired by the 1988 John Waters film, tells the story of a Rubenesque young spitfire who dances her way onto a popular 1960s Baltimore TV dance show and rallies to open it to people not only of all sizes, but all colors.

Schaeffer, however, hoped to incorporate more of Baltimore, more of the musical's mildly grittier roots. "The whole set is not these candy-coated, pastel rowhouses of Baltimore," he says. And when it came time to cast the role of Edna Turnblad, he was looking for someone who would be equally unconventional: Davis.

The character is as much of an enigma as the choice of Davis for the role - Edna is a woman who, seemingly afraid of being judged for her size, has all but barricaded herself in her home. Since the days that Waters first cast the Baltimore actor Divine in the role, Edna has been played by men.

"I wanted to make sure this would be not insulting to women - I don't like those performances of Edna that kind of break the role - and that it be honoring the people of Baltimore, and honoring John Waters's original vision," Davis says. "Really, this is a story of civil rights, and human rights, and a huge subtext that John Waters had was the rights of people who are not allowed to be on television: portly people."

The joke among those involved in the show is that Davis is not only playing Edna, but also filling in as the show's resident historian. "One day at rehearsal, we just had him sit down and talk to all the young actors about his experience of going through the riots here in Washington, and the sense of segregation in the schools," Schaeffer says.

The musical's fictional dance show, "The Corny Collins Show," Davis recalls, was based in part on Baltimore's "Buddy Deane Show," which aired on WJZ-TV in the late 1950s and early '60s. Davis, like many teens, watched it religiously (the show was canceled just as pressure to integrate was mounting).

"Robert is not nearly just a dowdy housewife," says Schaeffer. "He's like a woman who's been locked in her apartment for years and not gone outside. It captures that world of John Waters in a great way."

"In this part," Schaeffer adds, "he's really creating a character."