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December 13, 2011

'Hairspray' gets kinetic revival at Signature Theatre

Those crazy kids with their triple-lacquered coifs and radical ideas about interracial dancing are back, ripping up the stage at Signature Theatre in an infectiously animated revival of "Hairspray."

Even allowing for a shortcoming or two, the production provides a striking reaffirmation of just what a cleverly crafted, thoroughly engaging musical this is.

It may follow well-worn paths in terms of plot trajectory, but so many fresh curves get thrown along the way that "Hairspray" never lets up and never lets you down.

It helps that the source material is so strong -- the film written and directed by John Waters, whose love affair with Baltimore, in all of its quirkiness, found particularly broad-based appeal here.

Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan did a remarkable job preserving the essence of the movie. And Marc Shaiman really nailed the early-'60s sound-world, including rock and  Motown; it's an uncannily evocative score.

The show revolves around the character of Tracy Turnblad, the ever-so-slightly overfed teen who just wants to dance on the local "Corny Collins Show" on TV. Oh yeah, and try to integrate said show while she's at it. And somehow catch the eye of its dreamboat participant, Link Larkin, too.

Carolyn Cole gives a ...

brilliant, Broadway-worthy performance as Tracy. She is totally at home in the role, from every angle, so genuine and ingratiating that Tracy takes on a much deeper dimension than usual.

Cole is also a solid singer, not just technically, but expressively; her instinctive phrasing makes songs come alive. She delivers dialogue with just as much color and tonal variety, if not more.

And the portrayal is heightened by some of the funniest, subtly-shifting facial expressions I've seen in a long time.

Tracy's arnin' (Baltimore for ironing) mom, Edna, is the role indelibly created by the one-and-only Divine in the Waters film and by hard-to-top Harvey Fierstein in the original Broadway production of the musical.

Signature's Edna is a TV/radio producer in the DC area, Robert Aubrey Davis, longtime host of "Around Town" on the PBS affiliate WETA. He is also familiar to Sirius/XM satellite radio listeners for his work on the classical and pops channels.

Davis sort of grazes the scenery. It's an earnest, perfectly pleasant effort, but could use a firmer, more distinctive dose of personality.

As an actor, Patrick Thomas Cragin is also a bit short on spark in the role of Link Larkin, but he comes alive in the dances and sings with a good deal of flair. Erin Driscoll is amusing as Amber Von Tussle, the supremely vain girl who thinks Link is all hers. Sherri L. Edelen generates even more heat, musical and theatrical, as Amber's wicked mom, Velma.

With an ever-ready-for-my-close-up smile, Stephen Gregory Smith does a terrific job as Corny Collins. Lauren Williams has quite a romp as Tracy's bursting-of-her-shell girlfriend Penny Lou Pingleton. Matt Conner, one of the few in the cast who tries for a Baltimore accent, and Lynn Audrey Neal handle multiple supporting roles in vibrant style.

Nova Y. Payton delivers quite a jolt as Motormouth Maybelle, using her formidable vocal skills to bring down the house with "I Know Where I've Been," the song that gives "Hairspray" its soul in more ways than one.

Generally effective contributions come from the rest of the ensemble. And the nine-piece band, with Jenny Cartney leading from the keyboard, makes a hot sound.

Director Eric Schaeffer has the action flowing seamlessly through Daniel Conway's streamlined set, which leaves plenty of room for the performers to execute the fun choreography by Karma Camp and Brianne Camp. Each burst of dancing somehow gets more kinetic than the last.

"Hairspray" runs through Jan. 29.

PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER MUELLER

Posted by Tim Smith at 9:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
View the Artsmash blog
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