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A timeless cult classic

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review 

Theme of ‘Hairspray’ still relevant after 15 years

When the cast of San Diego Musical Theatre’s terrific “Hairspray” sings “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” you’ll be hard-pressed not at least want to sing, clap and dance along with them.

Set in 1962, after the Bay of Pigs but before life got ugly with assassinations and Vietnam, this sprightly teenybopper musical (directed by The Old Globe’s Jack O’Brien) ran six years on Broadway and won eight Tony Awards out of 13 nominations in 2003. It’s back in town through Sept. 2 at the Horton Grand Theatre downtown, directed by J. Scott Lapp.

Tracy Turnblad (Bethany Slomka) becomes famous appearing on the Corny Collins TV show. (Photo courtesy of Beth Alison / SD Musical Theatre)

You remember the story: Plus-sized Tracy Turnblad (Bethany Slomka) lives in Baltimore and dreams of dancing on the local Corny Collins TV show, a teen dance show inspired by “American Bandstand.”

Tracy’s mom Edna (John Massey) doesn’t encourage her, because she’s plus-sized herself and knows the depressing facts of life for overweight wannabe TV performers.

Tracy Turnblad (Bethany Slomka) winds up in jail after protesting against
segregation (Photo courtesy of Beth Alison / SD Musical Theatre)

Tracy’s dad Wilbur (Steve Gunderson) is on the fence about his daughter’s ambition. He has his own stalled dream: to own a chain of joke shops, not just the one Har-de-Har Joke Shop he owns now.

But Tracy will not be dissuaded by the odds or even by the meanness of Velma Von Tussle (the inimitable Eileen Bowman), the show’s producer who wants above all for her own (equally mean) daughter Amber (Lauren King Thompson) to succeed.

When Tracy shows up at the audition, Velma gives her the evil eye, but allows her to audition. Much to Velma’s disgust, Tracy not only becomes a star, but even manages to steal Amber’s boyfriend, the hunky Link Larkin (Nickolas Eiter).

But “Hairspray” is more than a beating-the-odds story. Tracy is the type who is frequently in the soup with the school principal and ends up in detention with amazing frequency. That’s where she met the black kids, especially Seaweed J. Stubbs (the terrific Kenneth Mosley), who taught her some of the moves that gave her the audition edge.

So when Tracy notes that there are no faces of color on the show (except once a month on “Negro Day”), she organizes a protest outside the TV station. They march with picket signs saying things like “Let My People Dance.” It creates a sensation. Velma calls the cops and most of the women end up in jail overnight. All except Tracy – who is sent to solitary, thanks to Velma – are released the next day.

But Tracy doesn’t give up in her determination to integrate the show. When she gets out and goes to see her friends, Motormouth Maybelle (played by dynamite singer Eboni Muse) brings tears to the eyes of everyone onstage with her rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Slomka has Tracy down pat, thanks to at least two other runs (at San Diego Rep and Welk Resorts), and she’s still terrific.

There are, in fact, no weak links here. Gunderson’s Wilbur and Massey’s cross-dressing Edna are funny and utterly charming as Tracy’s parents, especially in their soft-shoe number “Timeless to Me.”

Bowman is hilariously mean as Velma; Lauren King Thompson a chip off the old block as daughter Amber.

Zackary Scot Wolfe is amusing, even charming as the show’s host Corny Collins. Emma Nossal is fine as Tracy’s shy friend Penny.

Kudos to director J. Scott Lapp and his crackerjack design team. Jill Gorrie’s choreography is bouncy and just right for the time and characters. Don LeMaster’s 14-member orchestra is excellent.

Mike Buckley comes through with another great set design, and Janet Pitcher’s costumes are just right. Lighting and sound are well handled by Michelle Miles and Kevin Anthenill, and Peter Herman gets a nod for those outrageous ’60s hair designs.

“Hairspray” ends well, as most musicals must, and sends the audience home smiling and humming because, as we all know, you can’t stop the beat.

— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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