'Hairspray' Winner at Wagon Wheel

Hairspray at Warsaw's Wagon Wheel Theatre

In the past several decades, the trend on Broadway has been to take popular films and turn them into theatrical musicals. If there were some musical numbers in the film score, more were added to make the stage version acceptable. Some of these “transfers” worked, especially those from the Disney organization. Some did not (“Urban Cowboy,” “The Catered Affair”).

One that not only survived the transition with amazing success but returned the favor by becoming a real movie musical is the current offering at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre — “Hairspray.”

Set in the ‘60s, the story of Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad and her battles with weight and segregation originated in the 1988 movie written and directed by John Waters. At first glance, it doesn’t seem the stuff of which popular musicals are made. But look at little closer.

At WW, the happily uptempo score by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman is well-integrated with the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and brought explosively to life by director/choreographer Scott Michaels and his talented cast.

From the first notes of “Good Morning Baltimore,” the show is infused with the positive energy of Lauren Turner’s Tracy, an overweight teen whose dream is to dance on the TV dance show of host Corney Collins (David Schlumpf). Determined to achieve her goal despite genetically transferred averdupois from her mother Edna (Robert J. Miller — that’s right!), she faces the hostility of show producer Velma Von Tussle (Lauren Roesner) and the prejudice of daughter Amber Von Tussle (Mary Little) and her thin, whites-only fellow dancers.

Initially she is supported only by her friend Penny Pingletom (Cassie Levine), but eventually finds her views — which now are widened to include integrated dancing and not just “Negro Day” — are shared by Seaweed J. Stubbs (Kevin J. Watson II), his sister Little Inez (Jalise Wilson), his mom, Motormouth Maybelle (Kathrine Thomas) and, surprisingly, by Link Larkin (Stephen Anthony), Amber’s boyfriend and Elvis wannabe, and Collins himself.

As the Miss Teenage Hairspray Contest nears, tension mounts and everything builds to the (literally) explosive finale.

This “Hairspray” is 2 and ¼ hours (plus intermission) of fun, which also delivers some important lessons to a ‘60s beat, lessons which unfortunately need periodic relearning. Possibly the mark is hit best by Sophie Grimm as Penny’s prejudiced mom Prudy (one of her three distinctly different characters). Finding her daughter and Seaweed in the bedroom, Prudy is shocked to silence, then cries “Colored in the house!” exiting with the wail “We’ll never sell it now!”

As Tracy, Turner may not be as large physically as others who have played this role, but she delivers the character and her purpose with unbounding energy and a solid performance. And I love (and remember) that hair!

There is no lack of vocal prowess in this cast! Roesner offers a powerhouse  rendition of “Velma’s Revenge” and Thomas literally stops the show with “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Now back to Miller, who is returning to the WW stage after too long an absence and removed his facial hair to don Edna’s flamboyant costumes (designer Stephen R. Hollenbeck at his best) and towering red wig! Obviously, it’s difficult to completely forget that this is a large man in a lot of sequins AND heels, but it’s not difficult to completely be on board with Edna’s emerging self-assurance and devotion to her family. As her confidence grows, so does her connection to the audience who relate to this character unconditionally.

Part of the suspension of disbelief about Edna, is the consistently solid support given by Michael Yocum as her husband, Wilbur Turnblad, owner of the Hardy Har Hut, who dreams of a chain of joke shops. Their duet, “You’re Timeless to Me,” is one of the show’s loveliest moments.

Production-wise, Hollenbeck has gathered exactly the right colors and shapes to re-energize ‘’60’s, also recalled by David Lepor’s angular set design. Conductor Thomas N. Stirling is again at the keyboard of the excellent eight-piece orchestra and company member Jennifer Dow not only dances and sings but is responsible for all the period-proper beehive wigs!

I guarantee that as the lights fade on the final bows, you will find “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

“HAIRSPRAY” plays at 8 p.m. today and Saturday and Wednesday through July 1; 2 p.m. Sunday; and 7 p.m. Tuesday in the theater at 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw. For reservations, call (574) 267-8041 or visit www.wagonwheeltheatre.com,ol

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