Hairspray is a perfect show for the talents and limitations of Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. The show is bright, fast moving, and loud, perfect for an audience that has been well fed and lubricated before the show even begins. It also has a sly sense of humor and a big heart, both of which sit perfectly in director Michael Brindisi's wheelhouse. The production has all of that, along with absolutely delightful choreography from Tamara Kangas Erickson and a star-making performance by Therese Walth in the lead role.
Welcome to Baltimore, 1962, an era of high-rise hairdos, "the Madison," and growing social unrest. Like the original John Waters film, the musical follows Tracy Turnblad, a high-spirited teenager who is in love with the dance music of the day. When there's an opening on the local Corny Collins show, Tracy tries to audition, but they won't even give her a second look because of her plump build.
Tracy is nothing if not determined, and she gets the eye of Corny—and heartthrob Link Larkin—at a school dance, which moves her onto the show. Again, her big heart gets her into trouble, not only with Amber von Tussle (and her mother, Velma), who has her eye on (and hooks into) Link, but also her desire to integrate the program.
Hairspray the movie was probably Waters's most accessible film, and the musical continues that quality. It still centers on outsiders—teenage rejects, hard-working failures, and those pushed aside because of the color of their skin—but does so with a strong sense of nostalgia. That nostalgia threatens to take over the musical, a form that has to balance nuance with catchy songs.
Enough of Waters's original bite remains in the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan to remind the audience that real issues of racism and prejudice are bubbling to the surface. The songs, created by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (whose extensive credits include the songs for South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut), also keep the Waters edge intact, spoofing the teen pop of the pre-Beatles 1960s, such as the stuck-up dancers on Corny Collins singing "The Nicest Kids in Town."
Though there are subplots and side characters aplenty, Hairspray is Tracy's story, and this production belongs to newcomer Walth. Though there are traces of the previous actors who made the role famous, Walth makes it all her own. Her strong voice, ever-pleasant demeanor, and inner strength combine for a terrific performance. Walth's strengths as a performer make it easy to believe that Tracy can cut through the barriers in front of her—her weight, social standing, and desire for justice—with a smile and a song.
One constant among all of the versions of Hairspray is that Tracy's mother, Edna, is a drag role—from Divine in the film to Harvey Fierstein in the original Broadway company to, um, John Travolta in the film adaptation of the stage musical. Here, longtime Chanhassen performer David Anthony Brinkley puts on Edna's plus-size dress to fine effect (and perhaps marking a trend, he also put on a dress for the company's version of The Producers). He is teamed up with Jay Albright, playing the joy-buzzer-loving patriarch, Wilbur. The two have a fine duet in Act Two, "You're Timeless to Me," which solidifies the love between the two characters and gives the two actors a real chance to strut their stuff.
The rest of the performances fuel the show, from Aimee K. Bryant's forceful Motormouth Maybelle (a local African-American DJ who helps to open Tracy's eyes) to Kosono Mwanza's lithe and limber Seaweed to Kaija Pellinen's flighty Penny Pingleton.
And as shows are often only as good as their villains, Nicole Renee Chapman and Julianne Mundale give terrific performances as the evil mother-and-daughter team, Amber and Velma von Tussle. The characters are strong enough to serve as suitable foils to Tracy's innocent plans, and the two actors play it up to the hilt.
All this is wrapped up by the skills of Brindisi and Erickson, who keep the high energy flowing from the first moments of the show, without it exhausting the audience. It's all played out on a bright, clever stage created by Nayna Ramey, who replaces the original's high-tech backdrop with warm set pieces that evoke the era without trying to be a perfect replica. (Though I could have done without the obvious bits of product placement, joking or not, for main sponsor Regis Salons.)
That's essential. Hairspray isn't a replica; it's not a historical drama or a searing examination of the nascent civil rights movement. It's about a small group of friends who see a wrong and try to make it better. That's the power of any version of the story, and one that Chanhassen produces from beginning to end.