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In Hairspray, the only thing bigger than Edna Turnblad’s 54EEE silhouette is the carbon footprint of the pastel-hued production itself. To contemplate the cubic volume of ozone-depleting propellant expelled into Signature Theatre’s MAX space during this fast-moving, utterly disarming two-and-a-half-hour crowd-pleaser is to hope the cast commutes by biodiesel bus.
The Tony-winning 2002 musical adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 movie is tuneful and subversive enough that even those who haven’t seen any of its prior iterations (me) and who approach musicals in general with some degree of skepticism (me, again) will have a good time. And, this new production, directed by Signature poombah Eric Schaeffer, has energy and good humor to burn. Set in Baltimore a couple years before the Beatles arrive, the piece gives us a likable underdog in Tracy Turnblad (Carolyn Cole), a plus-sized high schooler who dreams only of dancing with total Baldwin Link Larkin on The Corny Collins Show, an after-school TV hit parade. The show’s vulpine producer, former Miss Baltimore Crabs Velma Von Tussle, is as disinclined to hire a big girl as she is to hire a black dancer. I give nothing away when I tell you that once Tracy learns some sultry moves from the black kids she hangs with in detention (James Hayden Rodriguez, whose character has the curious name of Seaweed Stubbs, is the leader of the bunch, taking an immediate shine to Tracy’s even nerdier sidekick, Penny Lou Pingleton), neither the color barrier nor the shape barrier can hold. Not here, anyway: John Waters may have earned his reputation as Baltimore’s ambassador of grotesque, but the PG-rated film that inspired this show is the most wholesome, feel-goody entry in his ouevre.
We get the usual high standard of work from Signature regulars Erin Driscoll, as Amber, Tracy’s mean-girl rival for Link’s affections, and Harry A. Winter as Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s doofus magic-shop proprietor of a dad. Patrick Thomas Cragin has a Swayze-esque appeal as Link. WETA Around Town host Robert Aubry Davis is stunt-cast as Edna, a diet-pill-popping laundress with plenty of love to give. (Disclosure: Washington City Paper theater critic Trey Graham appears regularly on Davis’ TV show, and I’ve filled in for Graham there twice.) That aside, Davis’s expansive, lumbering charm suits the role perfectly, and if his singing isn’t as smooth as his castmates’, that works in the show’s favor, too. Nova Y. Payton is the scene-stealer who assuages Edna’s anxieties about her girth and gets to belt out the show’s big racial progress anthem, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” That’s the most electrifying number, but none of them of bad. The choregraphy, by Karma Camp and Brianne Camp, is clean and athletic, and at the end of a long evening of dancing, every performer’s hair remains rigidly in place. I wonder how they do that.