by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday October 4, 2009

Ross Lehman (Edna), Marissa Perry (Tracy), and Billy Harrigan Tighe (Link) star in HAIRSPRAY at Marriott Theatre
Ross Lehman (Edna), Marissa Perry (Tracy), and Billy Harrigan Tighe (Link) star in HAIRSPRAY at Marriott Theatre  

The moment Tracy Turnblad (played by the radiant Marissa Perry) opens her eyes, jumps out of bed, and starts singing the virtues of another Baltimore morning, you're hooked. Perry, along with the company of Marriott Theatre's sparkling new production of Hairspray, kicks off one of the most entertaining evenings you're likely to encounter this theatrical season or next.

Quite simply: Marriott has a hit on their hands.

A Tony-winning smash for seven years on Broadway, Hairspray takes John Waters' endearing and offbeat 1988 movie and elevates it into the stratosphere -- mostly thanks to a perfectly penned score by Marc Shaiman (music) and Scott Whitman (lyrics).

Each number is a winner, with catchy tunes that immediately seem familiar as they so wholly capture the sounds and rhythms of the 60s. And Whitman's whip-smart lyrics manage to propel the story and drive character without sacrificing entertainment value. Add Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's hilarious book, which maintains Waters' trademark off-center perspective while celebrating the spirit of change and equality, and you've got a winning package tied up in a big, pink bow.

Hairspray follows the story of Tracey Turnblad (Perry), a giddy, spirited and pleasantly plump high school girl armed with a big heart and an even bigger bouffant. All she wants to do is dance on TV. Her sweet, reclusive mother, Edna -- made famous by drag diva Divine in the movie and later the irreplaceable Harvey Fierstein in the musical -- worries her daughter's a "hair hopper." In her quest to dance, Tracy auditions for "The Corny Collins Show," and discovers that not only do they not want girls of her type dancing on TV, they also don't support integration. With spunky determination, Tracey shakes up the status quo, lands the man of her dreams and sets Baltimore dancing and singing.

I caught the first national tour with Bruce Vilanch and Carly Jibson a handful of years ago when it played at the Oriental, and this production matches it on nearly every level.

The cast is the main draw for this production. This is a showcase for strong comedic actors, and director/choreographer Marc Robin has assembled an unsurpassable group. Hot off the Broadway production where she starred as Tracy, Perry is a powerhouse. With boundless energy, she tackles this monster of a role with ease and addictive charm. You totally root for her. As her mother, Ross Lehman is still fitting into Edna's padded bra, pumps and Pucci print, but I'm confident he'll be great with a few more performances under his girdle. Even while not quite 100 percent there, Lehman's still a winner. He's matched with the warm Gene Weygandt, fresh from Marriott's The Light in the Piazza, as husband Wilbur.

For me, the show really shines due to the supporting players, including divas E. Faye Butler as sassy Motormouth Maybelle and Hollis Resnik as the very white and very uptight Velma Von Tussle. These two actresses are of their own league, and they know how to work it. Heidi Kettenring may be a bit on the mature side for awkward Penny Pingleton, but she wins you over nevertheless. (Keep an eye out for her "dancing" during "Run and Tell That.") And Scott Calcagno is an absolute scene stealer as the saliva-saturated principal, among his many other roles.

The only minor misstep is the otherwise talented Johanna McKenzie Miller as Tracey's nemesis, Amber. With her trained soprano singing voice and defined cheekbones, she's simply miscast (and quite literally 20 years too old) to play a convincing blonde, bratty teen. However, this casting oversight doesn't drag down the show's unending energy.

Robin uses Marriott's round stage effectively. His choreography is lively and appropriately period. At times it can be difficult to direct focus during large group scenes when staging in the round, and Robin addresses this challenge by having ancillary actors move out into the aisles during key moments, as to not draw attention from the onstage action.

However, I did miss the oh-so-very-John-Waters-esque dodge ball scene, which I imagine would be impossible to play out in the round. Unfortunately, this cut results in an awkwardly re-blocked confrontation between Amber and Tracy.

Another minor quibble is the sanitization of the Female Authority Figure and the Gym Teacher, both played safely by Catherine Lord. These characters are quintessential John Waters creations. Yes, they're offensive in their lecherous lesbian stereotyping, but it's John Waters. I think the toning down of these interpretations is simply to play to suburban audiences. However, please bear in mind; these criticisms come from a big John Waters fan.

While the entire physical production is stellar, credit must be given to Gerard Kelly's outrageous wig designs. These creations are works of art.

I guarantee you will enjoy yourself at Hairspray and you'll be up on your feet at conclusion of the rousing finale number, "You Can't Stop the Beat." It's a well-deserved standing ovation.

Hairspray plays at Marriott Theatre to December 6. More info at

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at