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?
Wren is a freelance writer.
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan; lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman; music by Marc Shaiman; based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters. Directed by Eric Schaeffer; orchestrations, Gabriel Mangiante; sound design, Matt Rowe. With Stephen Gregory Smith, Lynn Audrey Neal, Adhana Reid and others. Two and a half hours. Through Jan. 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-7328.