"If we get any more white people in here," complains one of the characters in "Hairspray," as curious Caucasians fill Motormouth Maybelle's record shop, "this is gonna be a suburb."
That line — long familiar to those of us who've heard "Good Morning Baltimore" a few times too many times — got a startlingly huge laugh at the suburban Drury Lane on Thursday. At that moment, I was struck anew at how, aside from invariably being a crowd-pleasing good time, this particular show surely has the best gags about racial prejudice — not a huge category, I know — of any Broadway musical ever written. Most writers would have pause at having their leading African-American character, a singing-dancing sweetheart, suddenly pull out a knife while singing a line about "living in the ghetto," but not these writers, who knew, firstly, that you can't get laughs without calling out what your audience is secretly thinking and worrying about and, secondly, that if you get the tone right, you can write a musical comedy about anything and make people see what they've never fully seen.
The charms of the musical "Hairspray" owe much, of course, to the quirkiness and fearlessness of the 1988 John Waters movie that provided the source. But it's also due to the careful but gutsy toning of the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan — and the formidably entertaining lyrics by Scott Wittman, music by Marc Shaiman. It was no small feat to pen a Broadway musical about an inter-racial group of teenagers' struggles to integrate a TV show that the late, great
I don't mean to claim that "Hairspray" is some kind of masterwork of racial harmony. I'm just saying that on Thursday night, I watched it do its still-useful thing in that regard, just as it does now nightly and globally in theaters of all kinds.
These days, the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace is a theater of the top-tier kind, and its new production is a Broadway-sized affair, replete with a cast of 33 actors, plenty of spectacular gowns designed by Kurt Alger, who makes Michael Aaron Lindner look very good in a dress, and an expansive, if sometimes clunky, set from Marcus Stephens. Director and choreographer Tammy Mader's production does not contain any massive interpretive surprises and I wouldn't say that the show has a seamless visual trajectory — the boxy pieces that make up the set are so enormous, frankly, they make many of the transitions difficult. But this very enjoyable show has a spring in its step (you can tell the director is a choreographer) and it's adroitly cast. The star of the proceedings, a diminutive young actress named Lillian Castillo, gets a huge laugh merely by sporting a hairdo that is about as a tall as she is herself. And she charms thereafter.
Happily, Castillo has the right note of sweetness and awkwardness — which you don't always see with Tracy Turnblads, who often are inclined to belt it out to the back of the house like they've been bottling it up their whole lives. Castillo goes for a sweeter, more honest take — as does Lindner, whose Edna Turnblad never camps anything up but focuses on the inherent shyness of a woman who is embarrassed by her weight and does not really want to leave the house. Lindner, one of the great underappreciated assets of the Chicago musical scene, has never had a role quite like this, and he puts heart and soul into an Edna that is, I think, the most poignant of the many I've seen. And unlike many of the bigger names who've played this part, Linder can really sing.
All of the other familiar comic characters are executed with verve, including sweet geniality from Tim Kazurinsky as Edna's wacky husband Wilbur (Lindner is a much bigger man, and much fun is had with what Wilbur can see and do at eye level). There's an amusing turn from Felicia P. Fields as Motormouth, replete with much seductive polishing of any balding noggins she can find seated anywhere near an aisle, and some juicy satire from Rebecca Pink, who makes a pleasingly geeky Penny without over-pushing a gal who has never stood up to anyone until she declares, "I've tasted chocolate and I'm never going back." Erik Altemus' Link is aptly guileless and Jon Michael Reese's Seaweed is also stellar — Mader has him constantly on the move and he moves a lot more easily than the set.
It takes a while for the band to get the memo that this is a rockin' good time. Despite all the musicians — it's a nine-piece band — the horns lack brilliance, especially early in the show, the percussion is overly tentative and the mix is mushy. That should be fixed up. On the stage, kids are trying to eat their breakfast and then go out and change a world that's still cautiously watching them.
When: Through June 17
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours, 30 mins.