Annapolis Summer Garden caps a strong season with "Hairspray," John Waters' nostalgic tribute to 1960s Baltimore that is a perfect fit for outdoor August evenings at City Dock.
Based on Waters' 1988 film, the musical has won eight Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.
At a 2003 Broadway visit to a session of the American Theatre Critics Association mini-conference, Waters stressed the importance of the authenticity of every aspect of the Baltimore rowhouse set seen in the Broadway production.
Waters would find that, on a smaller scale, Annapolis Summer Garden's production features an equally authentic replica of bygone Baltimore recreated in all its white marble front-step Formstone glory. Here Tracy Turnblad awakens to greet the day with "Good Morning, Baltimore," soon joining a lively crowd of colorful characters filling the neighborhood street.
Honored by the Ruby Griffith Awards for last season's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," Darnell Morris directs another award-worthy production in "Hairspray," using the talents of his cast while infusing every scene with substance and energy.
Prefacing that his family is from Baltimore, Morris in his director's notes says, "I remember watching 'Hairspray' with my Grandmother who said, 'I was there. I was one of them.' … It makes me proud of my Grandmother." Morris explains that the show is "loosely based on the important role Baltimore played in the Civil Rights Movement," when an attempt was made to integrate a TV teenage dance program, "The Buddy Deane Show," which is called "The Corny Collins Show" in the play.
WJZ's show aired from 1957 to 1964 and was popular among Baltimore teens, promoting dances like the twist, mashed potato, and the Madison. Originally an all-white teen show with a monthly "Negro Day" that later became a weekly event, the Deane show proved hard to integrate despite WJZ management's support. Parents' objections to white and black kids dancing together eventually helped force the show off the air.
But Waters' revisionist history provides a happy ending and a fun show about life as it should be. The plot centers on Patterson Park High student Tracy Turnblad, who wants to dance on "The Corny Collins Show" and fights for a chance to get on and later to integrate it.
Despite her mother Edna's protective discouragement, Tracy is chosen to dance on the show and attracts the attention of super dancer Link Larkin. Frequently ending up in detention at school, big-haired and big-hearted Tracy learns some great dance moves from Seaweed J. Stubbs, the son of Motormouth Maybelle. Entrepreneur Motormouth hosts the black dance segments on the Collins show and operates her own record store.
In the Summer Garden production, Anne Arundel Community College vocal performance major Anastasia Herne plays Tracy, doing full justice to every song and showing excellent dance skills while conveying believability in each of her scenes.
In the drag role of Edna is veteran actor Jeff Sprague, who offers a first-rate and heartfelt performance complete with acceptable Baltimorese accent, some warm singing and nifty dance moves.
Wilbur Turnblad is well played by Kevin Reagan, who provides a lovely moment in his "You're Timeless To Me" duet with Sprague's Edna.
Velma Von Tussel, the pushy producer of "The Corny Collins Show," is played well by Donielle Juenker, and her bratty dancing daughter, Amber, is made equally believable by Christina Carlucci.
Two standout dancers are Austin Heemstra as heartthrob Link Larkin and Rodney Davis Jr., who delivers phenomenal dance moves as Stubbs.
As Tracy's friend, Penny Pingleton, Jenny Abraham offers a warm and solid performance. Penny's mother, Prudy Pingleton, is a stereotypical role that reflects the attitude of a segment of 1960s-era Baltimore parents that hastened the demise of the Deane show.
Playing Seaweed's mother, Motormouth Maybelle, is Tia-Cherie Dolet, a recent graduate of American University who majored in musical theater. She proves she can define a character and provide a showstopping moment in delivering "I Know Where I've Been."
Show host Corny Collins is well played by Chad Wheeler.
Contributing much to the overall success of this production is choreographer Nicole Martin, who re-creates favorite dances from the era.
Equal credit is due to music director Trent Goldsmith, who contributes superb musicianship along with a large element of fun. Conductor/pianist Goldsmith is joined by Ken Kimble and Monica Garcia on keyboards, Jeremy Ritenour on reeds, Matt Henry on guitar, Rob Weaver on bass and Jason Barteck on drums, who all provide a continuous joyful sound.
Continuing weekends through Sept. 4, "Hairspray" tickets can be ordered online at summergarden.com or at the box office at 410-268-9212.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times