Broadway musicals can be intriguing barometers of where mainstream audiences happened to be at any particular point in history. This was driven home after watching the exuberant Paramount Theatre revival of “Hairspray” (the 2002 Broadway hit inspired by John Waters’ 1988 film) just days after seeing a high-spirited revival of the 1960 musical “Bye Bye Birdie” at Drury Lane.
Both shows suggest how teenage culture can be a motor for change. But while the popularity of Elvis Presley-generated rock ‘n’ roll among white adolescents in small-town America was enough to shake the adults in “Bye Bye Birdie” (with a Latina adult adding a particularly timely edge), that highly charged phrase “race music” was never uttered in the show. On the other hand, in “Hairspray,” set just a few years later (but yes, created four decades later), black-white relations are of the essence.
In addition, “Hairspray” came to the stage at a time when sexual identification had become a hot topic, so this issue, which would never have been raised in “Bye Bye Birdie,” is at play, too.
Set in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1962, “Hairspray” revolves around the irrepressible Tracy Turnblad (Amelia Jo Parish, an engine of motion and optimism who can dance and sing up a storm). A “plus size” teenager from a white working-class family, Tracy is passionate about rock ‘n’ roll and can tease her hair into a beehive with the best of them. The problem is, she doesn’t fit the traditional beauty profile, and this makes her hope of winning a place on “The Corny Collins Show,” the hugely popular dance showcase on local TV, seem like a futile pursuit.
When: Through Feb. 20
Where: Paramount Theatre,
8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora
Tickets: $41 – $56
Info: (630) 896-6666;
Run time: 2 hours and
25 minutes with one intermission
But Tracy will not be deterred. And along the way to claiming her right to be included — and to grab the attention of heartthrob Link Larkin, a regular on the show — she becomes a fervent crusader for civil rights and racial integration, organizing a protest and even doing jail time. (Of course the fact that the show is set in Baltimore, where the Freddie Gray case has been a headline story since last April, gives this element a notably timely edge.)
When sent to detention for wearing an oversize hairdo in high school, Tracy quickly bonds with the black students there and gets coaching in the latest dance moves from Seaweed J. Stubbs (the fleet and easily charming Gilbert Domally). She also ventures into a black neighborhood, where she meets Seaweed’s famous mom, Motormouth Maybelle (E. Faye Butler, who has the audience cheering with her two socko numbers, “Big, Blonde & Beautiful” and the anthemic “I Know Where I’ve Been”). Maybelle runs a record shop and is host of the sporadic “Negro Day” on Collins’ show — a “day” Tracy proclaims should be “every day.”
Amber Mak, among the female director-choreographers (Rachel Rockwell, Tammy Mader, Brenda Didier and Linda Fortunato) who are now major musical theater forces here, easily takes command of this show with its infectious score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and a snappy, feel-good book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. And not only has she winningly played down the campiness, but has she cast it ideally.
Tracy’s parents are a case in point, with Michael Kingston so happily larger-than-life and natural as Tracy’s mom, Edna, that you almost forget he’s in drag, and Michael Ehlers the essence of vaudeville joie de vivre as her fleet, adoring husband, Wilbur. Landree Fleming, a marvelous comedian, is perfection as Tracy’s nerdy pal, Penny Pingleton, who is bound to blossom. And Henry McGinniss is a wiry, lush-voiced Link.
Heather Townsend is all bigoted nastiness as Velma Van Tussle, the corrupt, rail-thin, bottle-blonde TV exec hellbent on keeping her daughter, Amber (spot-on Samantha Pauly), in the spotlight. Carlita Victoria, Allie Jae and Reneisha J. Jenkins sparkle as the Dynamites, Baltimore’s version of the Supremes. And there are fine turns by Devin DeSantis, Ariana Burks and a terrific ensemble that is just the latest proof this city’s theater dancers have become masters of the craft.
Linda Buchanan’s multifaceted set is enhanced by Greg Hofmann’s superb, Crayon-colored lighting, Michael Stanfill’s media design and Theresa Ham’s housedress-to-fake-Pucci print gowns. And as always, conductor and music director Tommy Vendafreddo and his musicians make Paramount’s large orchestra a star of the production.