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January 25, 2013

'Hairspray' holds up well in concert version from Baltimore Symphony

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has developed a knack for effective theatrical presentations. A riveting semi-staging of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” a few seasons ago is a case in point. An exuberant concert version of the hit musical “Hairspray” this weekend is another.

Never mind that a good deal of dialogue from the Broadway musical, based on the 1988 John Waters movie, is gone. Or that just a few props pop up — happily, one of them is a mechanical rat to dart across the stage during the opening “Good Morning, Baltimore” number.

Propelled by clever imitations of ’60s rock and soul by Marc Shaiman (he and Scott Witman wrote the spot-on lyrics), the “Hairspray” score is not an ideal candidate for symphonic orchestration. The BSO’s strings barely register in many of the numbers, given all the competition from winds and percussion.

But it’s cool to hear the music fleshed out and played so dynamically by the orchestra, led with his usual flair and precision by principal pops conductor Jack Everly.

Whatever material has been abridged or squeezed to create the concert version, plenty remains to evoke the spice of the original 2002 show, thanks to ...

a first-rate, exuberant cast (brightly costumed by Clare Henkel), and the incomparable presence of Waters himself as narrator.

He’s worth the price of admission. Waters does not just fill in plot details, but also offers insights into what inspired him to create the cinematic “Hairspray,” a tale of teen angst, dance fever and stubborn segregation in early 1960s Baltimore.

His comments include fascinating background into some of the characters (a discussion of Little Inez, one of the young black dancers in the story, is especially revealing).

Waters seems to relish the opportunity to work with the BSO. “Maybe I’ll come back and hum ‘Bolero’ while old people like me make out in the audience,” he told an enthusiastic crowd at the Music Center at Strathmore Thursday night.

This venture, a co-production with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, has been fluidly directed by David Levy and choreographed by Jennifer Ladner. (The only drawback at Strathmore was alternately spotty and blaring amplification.)

Two veterans of the Broadway run of “Hairspray” bring plenty of sizzle to the proceedings.

Marissa Perry reprises the role of Tracy Turnblad, the calorie-hoarder determined to dance on the local TV sensation, “The Corny Collins Show” — and, oh yeah, integrate the program, too. Perry is sweet, funny and nimble, and she sings up a storm. She has a great mate in Paul Vogt, who gives a delicious performance as Edna, Tracy’s mammoth mother.

Vogt, who was one of the successors to Harvey Fierstein in this drag assignment on Broadway, reveals nary a hint of self-consciousness. It’s a beautifully lived-in portrayal. The actor doesn’t get all of Edna’s lines in this version, but he successfully fills in the blanks with subtle touches. He’s also an effective singer, capable of stylish phrasing, along with some in-your-face, basso profundo notes.

Micky Dolenz, the veteran performer still famed as a member of The Monkees, glides smoothly into the role of Edna’s jokester husband, Wilbur. The actor may sound more like a cross between Crazy Guggenheim and Jimmy Durante than a guy from Highlandtown (there are no Baltimore accents, alas, in this cast), but he’s a winner. Dolenz and Vogt make their big number, “Timeless,” the old-fashioned showstopper it should be.

Beth Leveal exudes the requisite slime, to vivid effect, as Velma von Tussle. NaTasha Yvette Williams does an endearing turn as Motormouth Maybelle, and her lush voice soars stirringly in “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

As Motormouth’s son Seaweed (I wish Waters would talk about how he derived some of these names), the vibrant Marcus Terell does some soaring, too, hitting at least one note that could probably shatter glass.

The talented cast also features a colorful Nick Adams as heartthrob Link Larkin; and the bright-voiced Natalie Renee, Nikki Stephenson and Melissa Van Pelt as The Dynamites. Students from the Baltimore School of the Arts ably fill out this infectious celebration of a great American musical.

"Hairspray" will be performed Friday through Sunday at Meyerhoff Hall.


Posted by Tim Smith at 4:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: BSO, Clef Notes

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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 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.
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