April 8, Arkansas Repertory Theatre
The musical "Hairspray" is, in many ways, about progress. It's also about big hair and about a man dressing up as a woman and about Baltimore. But progress in "Hairspray" is represented by the integration of The Corny Collins teen dance program (and you know it's a musical because the real life teen dance program the fictional teen dance program was patterned after wasn’t successfully integrated). Progress at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, which is staging a truly exceptional production of "Hairspray" and which will likely prove to be a tough ticket, is measured in a different and harder to quantify way.
But "Hairspray" at the Rep feels like real progress — perhaps it's the glow coming off of the company's successful capitol campaign. More likely, it's that the Rep has just become better at big musicals. "Hairspray" is a great vehicle for that particularly hard-to-find performer — the singer/dancer/comic. "Hairspray" needs a dance floor full of these types and the Rep finds them. It's a cliche to say there isn't a weak link in the cast, but that cliche applies in this case.
"Hairspray” is of course based on the 1988 film by the gleefully trashy John Waters. The story of Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad, the "stout" heroine (played with infectious enthusiasm by Lillian Castillo), is part Cinderella, part Civil Rights struggle and part Waters' corn-fed, all-American vulgarity. Tracy's parents are, after all, the gold-hearted owner of a joke shop and the transvestite. OK, Edna Turnblad (played at the Rep by D. Scott Withers) has been historically played as a woman by men as diverse as John Travolta (in the film adaptation of the musical) and Waters’ late, longtime collaborator Divine (in the original 1988 film).
But among the many notable turns in this "Hairspray" the one by Arkansas native Katie Emerson, playing Tracy's best friend Penny Pingleton, is certainly one of the funniest performances you will ever see. Emerson plays Pingleton as a pig-tailed spazz who moves as if her arms and legs are on hinges and who delivers her lines on a frequency that only she can hear. It's such an imaginative take that it’s almost hard to watch anybody else when she's on stage.
It wouldn't be right not to mention the powerhouse voices in this show. Rick Qualls as Corny Collins has a huge voice that commands attention from the first note. And Lavon Fisher-Wilson as Motormouth Maybelle brought part of the audience to an early standing ovation after her incredibly stirring "I Know Where I've Been." But the complete, sustained ovation came at the end and it was well earned.