By Mary Damiano
Ending segregation through dance—that’s the basic premise of Hairspray, the rollicking, beloved musical now on the stage at Maltz Jupiter Theatre.
Based on the John Waters movie starring Ricki Lake and Divine, Hairspray concerns Tracy Turnblad, a Baltimore teen who, through her simple desire to dance on a local American Bandstand-style TV show, leads a crusade to end segregation.
It’s a pretty big deal when Tracy, who is not as skinny as the more popular girls, gets cast on The Corny Collins Show. In addition to getting to dance on TV, Tracy gets to be close to her crush, teen idol wannabe Link Larkin. But Tracy learned the dance moves that got her the gig from the black kids she meets in detention, and she doesn’t think it’s fair that they only get to dance on “Negro Day”, so she sets out to open hearts and change minds.
The overall production is just as colorful and over the top as you want Hairspray to be, although somewhat scaled down. The big opening number, for example, “Good Morning Baltimore”, is devoid of the street scene of everything Tracy encounters on her way to school. Other set pieces look awkward, such as the circular platform with steps that serves as the home of both Tracy and her best friend Penny. For some reason, the Maltz stage looks cramped and truncated. Hairspray lacks the lavish touch exhibited in most Maltz productions.
Perhaps more resources were funneled into the costumes and wigs, which are spectacular. Costume designer Kathleen Geldard keeps the wardrobe colorful and wonderfully on point for each character. Velma Von Tussle’s angular outfits enhance her wicked edge, while Maybelle Motormouth’s clothes have a sexy softness. Edna Turnblad’s post-transformation costumes are vibrant and refreshingly tasteful, better-suited for a woman with a new attitude.
Wig designer Gerard Kelly went all out with his intricate, sky-high, delightfully cartoonish hairstyles. His bouffants and beehives are divine, and he modernizes his designs in fun ways, like adding a shock of pink to Mr. Pinky’s ‘do.
This production features a slimmer Tracy Turnblad than Hairspray fans are accustomed to, but Mary Digangi is a triumph in the role. She expertly conveys Tracy’s feisty spirit, her teenage vulnerability, and her strong sense of right and wrong. She is also a terrific singer and dancer. And if anyone thinks she doesn’t physically fit the role, perhaps the message here is that one doesn’t have to be too far outside the mold of conformity to be ostracized.
Michael Kostroff is terrific as Tracy’s mom Edna Turnblad, the laundress who rediscovers her own confidence and regains her life through Tracy’s fight to follow her dreams. Kostroff makes Edna’s transformation from drab to fab realistic, and gives her journey nuance.
Altamiece Carolyn Cooper, as Motormouth Maybelle, makes every scene she’s in her own. Cooper has charisma to spare, and when she belts the gospel-tinged “I Know Where I’ve Been” you can’t help but feel a few tears welling up as well as hope for the future.
Mia Matthews, won won the 2017 Best Actress Carbonell Award for her dramatic performance in After, shows both her versatility and her vocal prowess. She is delicious as the villainous, Velma Von Tussle, the racist producer and stage mother who will do anything to get what she wants for herself and her mean-girl daughter Amber. Matthews’ flair for hurling an insult, her satisfied panache when carrying out Velma’s schemes, her comic timing—these things should all make directors consider her for more musicals.
There are many musical standouts, including “You’re Timeless To Me” the sweet duet between Edna and her ever-loving hubby Wilbur (Philip Hoffman), “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” the classic teen plea sung by Tracy, Amber (Chelsea Turbin) and Penny (Taylor Quick) to their worried moms, and the hopeful anthem for the future, “You Can’t Stop the Beat”.
On the surface, Hairspray is a fun and frothy show, but it’s a musical with a message: Segregation is wrong. Discrimination is wrong. And while Hairspray is set in 1962, among the signs in the protest scene is one proclaiming the more modern slogan Black Lives Matter. It’s a sad reminder that the fight against discrimination is still being fought.
Hairspray runs through January 28. For tickets and more information, visit JupiterTheatre.org