In Street Theatre Company's current production of the musical Hairspray, the deliciously satiric spirit of John Waters' original 1988 film is intact, preserved with playful wit in a script by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan that won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical in 2003. (Meehan, a veteran screenwriter, won the same Tony in 1977 for Annie and in 2001 for The Producers.)
The score, by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, is also a gem, offering a collection of toe-tapping rock 'n' roll, R&B and blues numbers that pay infectious tribute to the musical styles of the story's early-1960s setting, complete with lyrics that are crafted tightly and rhymed truly. STC's converted warehouse performance space sports a stage expansive enough to accommodate the show's large cast and big dance numbers.
Jon Royal directs and Bakari King choreographs. Following their lead is a cast of 35 that mixes pro and semi-pro talent with capable college-age performers, all of whom embrace the play's required energy and sharp-edged yet comical approach to its essential theme: the integration of marginalized minorities into the broader American social fabric.
Tonya Pewitt plays the heroine, Tracy Turnblad, a chubby teen with ultra-teased hair who dreams of joining the cast of The Corny Collins Show — a televised Baltimore dance program — and hooking up romantically with handsome Link Larkin (Michael Holder). "Integration is the new frontier," says Tracy, and after being put into her high school's "special ed" group with the African-American kids, she eventually emerges as the firebrand for bringing the community at large into the modern age of acceptance.
Pewitt and Holder make for an entertaining and likable leading couple. They both sing well, capturing the tongue-in-cheek tone of the material. They receive a lot of fine support, too, including Mike Baum as Collins, Nancy Allen as Velma (the racist you love to hate) and Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, whose Motormouth Mabel offers a serious presence and big bluesy vocals, especially on the lowdown "I Know Where I've Been."
Veteran singer L.T. Kirk is Edna, Tracy's mom, in a legendary drag turn that is nothing if not irrepressibly joyful, and he's mated to husband Wilbur, played by Dan McGeachy, who adds to his growing local résumé of character roles.
There are some charming and assured performances from younger players too, including relative newcomers Rosemary Fossee, Laura Oseland and Daniel Rye, and the show boasts notably talented choristers such as Stephanie Benton.
Ever steady musical director Rolin Mains leads the five-man combo, who are terrific — hats off in particular to the sax man, Ryan Middagh — though in the early going song lyrics were sometimes tough to hear over the band. Linda Cameron-Bayer provides the period costumes, which effectively transport viewers back to the conservative, ladylike '60s — that is, that part of the era just before all societal hell broke loose.
Hairspray was produced earlier this year in Murfreesboro, and Circle Players plan to mount the show in spring 2012. No doubt the Pink Flamingos-era Waters would laugh — or scratch his head — at getting mainstream acceptance in the Bible Belt. But the show's big heart and infectious embrace of outsiders is impossible to deny. And so is the fact that STC's merry staging sets a high bar for all who follow in its footsteps — or curlers.