It’s hard to image a stuffed-shirt city like the District loving a musical touting civil disobedience, drag humor and the splendor of Charm City. However, the Tony-winning “Hairspray” conquered Broadway and is poised to do the same here.
The musical, which opened at the Kennedy Center Wednesday and runs through Aug. 21, is based on Baltimore native John Waters’ eponymous 1988 film comedy. The almost-mainstream movie marked the director’s transition from cult hero of the alternative-lifestyle fringes to sly social critic.
Tubby Tracy Turnblad (Keala Settle) is a typical Baltimore teen, obsessed with her hair, boys and a dance show hosted by one Corny Collins (Paul McQuillan). When one of Corny’s dancers takes a nine-month sabbatical — just one of the musical’s tweaks at a judgmental society — Tracy auditions and wins the role.
Her mother, Edna (comedian John Pinette, in drag), couldn’t be happier for her daughter, even though she had feared Tracy’s weight would make her the show’s punch line.
Tracy doesn’t just become an overnight sensation; she also catches the eye of Elvis wannabe Link Larkin (Serge Kushnier).
Her fantasy-come-true is shattered when she realizes how segregated Corny’s show is. Her black friends would love to dance by her side, but Corny’s programming harpy (Susan Henley) won’t have it.
Can Tracy win Corny’s Miss Hairspray contest, woo Link and bring the races together on the dance floor?
“Hairspray’s” tone is so buoyant, so unswervingly sweet there’s never an iota of suspense surrounding whether she’ll hit the trifecta.
The music underscores that glee, glossing over Mr. Waters’ rebellious streak and the show’s bloated running time. Numbers such as “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” and “Good Morning Baltimore” burst with vitality, and Miss Settle’s voice is as brassy as her character’s heart is big.
Marc Shaiman’s lyrics are culturally aware and witty, even if they play the racial-injustice card a bit too often. Viewers with sensitive antennae might detect traces of racial condescension in the production’s idealized black characters and unabashed embrace of the stereotype of the sexually superior black male.
But such subtexts never linger long enough to put a damper on the bouncing songs — a razzle-dazzle, retro blend of sassy, Spectorish girl-group pop, soul and perhaps even a gospel-tinged allusion late in the final act to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
The juiciest role falls to Mr. Pinette in a part made famous by Divine, Mr. Waters’ transvestite of choice. Mr. Pinette, known for mocking his considerable frame on the stand-up circuit, prances around here as if every pound were a blessing. It’s a bravura turn in a role that could have been gimmicky or trite in lesser hands.
Especially touching is Edna’s love duet with hubbie Wilbur (Stephen DeRosa). Suddenly, we forget Mr. Pinette’s stuffed mumu and feel the force of their love.
Not everything in this road-tested tour comes off without a hitch. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography gets pinched by some clumsy staging, and few of the dance numbers leave us breathless. Miss Settle’s dancing is perfunctory at times, but its inelegance helps define her everygirl appeal.
“Hairspray” retains enough of Mr. Waters’ snarky side to please his loyalists and bursts with just about everything else for which a musical-theater fan could wish.
WHERE: The Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW
WHEN: Through Aug. 21
TICKETS: $35 to $93
WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.orgMAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS