Theater review: ‘Hairspray’ at the Hollywood Bowl

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Of all the mood-elevating musicals spawned in the last decade, “Hairspray,” based on John Waters’ bouncy 1988 film, has always been for me the most reliably uplifting. Friday night’s opening at the Hollywood Bowl, where the show touched down for a blissful weekend, offered an extra-strength formula of this merry fable of racial integration at a local Baltimore TV show, in which teens with formidable hairdos compete on the dance floor for the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray.

Back in their colorfully low-rent, early 1960s garb, Harvey Fierstein and Marissa Jaret Winokur reprised their Tony-winning performances as the sizable mother-daughter team of Edna, house-frump extraordinaire, and Tracy Turnblad, would-be queen of the hop. The show’s lovable leads, as fizzy as they were on Broadway, were backed by a glittering supporting cast that featured some captivating crooning by Nick Jonas (cue the squealing Jonas Brothers fans) in the role of heartthrob Link Larkin, one of the dance show regulars who sees past Tracy’s girth and falls in love with her effervescent spirit.

Musicals at the Bowl aren’t a natural fit. The oceanic vastness of the stage typically leaves actors swimming for their lives as rip currents take them to places only visible on the giant video screens. But director Jerry Mitchell, whose original choreography was always one of the chief assets of “Hairspray,” kept this 2003 best musical Tony winner as tightly focused as possible. The opening number “Good Morning Baltimore,” recalibrated around David Rockwell’s enlarged set, seemed to lack some of its usual verve, but the production’s initial shyness was quickly lost as the actors found their footing and released themselves to the madcap adventure of Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s appropriately loose-jointed book.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s pastiche score, with its irresistible R&B hooks and winking lyrics, allows “Hairspray” to thrive in a format that feels like a hybrid between a fully-staged affair and a concert. Naturally, it helps to have a singer as electric as recording artist Darlene Love in the role of Motormouth Maybelle, whose gospel-tinged civil rights number, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” was so sumptuously delivered it deserved an immediate encore. Love’s legendary voice, aged like a brilliant Bordeaux, melted refrains into aural ecstasy.

Nearly everything, save the microphone of Susan Anton, who played (somewhat wobbly, truth be told) the snooty stage mother of Tara Macri’s menacing Amber Von Tussle, was working. Drew Carey, as Wilbur, Edna’s amorous spouse and Tracy’s indulgent dad, was affectionately game. John Stamos, while vocally not very commanding, played TV host Corny Collins with his patented mischievous charm. Corbin Bleu, of the “High School Musical” franchise, was a slyly charismatic Seaweed J. Stubbs, who bucks up Tracy’s morale in detention by teaching her some fresh dance moves from the black side of town. Diana DeGarmo, alum of “American Idol” and the Broadway production of “Hairspray,” had spry fun returning to the part of Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s BFF who trades in her dopey skittishness for seductive brazenness once Seaweed’s kiss leaves her swooning.

Jonas is a bona fide trouper, who can do more than ignite feverish adulation in adolescent girls. Link, a teen superstar in the making, may not be much of an acting stretch, but Jonas had the discipline to stay in character while flaunting triple-threat talents that will undoubtedly have Broadway producers pounding at his door.

Of course, the vitality of this American fairy tale, in which the fat girl gets her prince while advancing the cause of social justice, owes the greatest debt to Fierstein’s timeless drag act and Winokur’s unforced ebullience. Fierstein’s voice might sound like a smashed kazoo these days, but his tremendous musicality and outsize grace carry a rectifying moral force. And Winokur hasn’t lost that gracious underdog appeal that keeps you rooting for irrepressible goodness to prevail.

The production, in short, lit up the summer night like a wayward moonbeam. Fittingly, the grand orchestra, conducted by musical director Lon Hoyt, sent us home humming the anthem “You Can’t Stop the Beat”—an undeniable fact for both the actors and the audience. For a weekend crammed with dire news, it was just the pick-me-up so many of us needed. RELATED:

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-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty