- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 17, 2005

Kisses, hugs, handshakes and orchid leis plus a jubilant audience on its feet cheering. Such were the huzzahs and hurrahs greeting the cast and crew of “Hairspray” Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.

The feeling was mutual, it turned out.

“The thing about Washington audiences is how smart they are,” said an appreciative Stephen DeRosa at a post-performance reception in the Atrium. He plays the father of a dance-crazed Baltimore teenager whose quest for love, fame and racial harmony in the heated 1960s forms the plot of the musical comedy inspired by the John Waters film of the same name.

“We haven’t had such an electrifying audience from the get-go,” he enthused. “The Kennedy Center is a jewel in Washington, whereas on Broadway you are just one of many shows.”

A line such as “manipulating the judicial system just to win a contest is un-American” delivered deadpan by actress Keala Settle playing the peripatetic teen with big hair and big hopes got one of the loudest laughs of the night, but was met only with silence in some cities, Mr. DeRosa said. “Sometimes you get caught up and say it’s just a job and on nights like this you remember that this is really something special to be part of this … to be entertaining and also have meaning.”

Mr. DeRosa, a 1990 graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, has been with the touring company through 17 cities on its current run. Alan Mingo Jr., another lead and “local boy” who went on to show biz glory agreed that D.C. audiences were “tough and smart. They don’t let anything slide.” (The 1995 graduate of Magruder High School in Bethesda was a five-year veteran star in “The Lion King” before joining “Hairspray” on tour.)

Waiters circulated with “Blue Hawaiians” (pineapple juice, blue Curacao liquor and rum) reminiscent of an Elvis Presley movie from the 1960s. Tables were laden with such delectables as green gelatin fruit mold, Rice Krispy Treats and cupcakes.

Actors chatted with guests about their careers and lives that sometimes seem to parallel the plot on stage. John Pinette, who has the central laugh role as the teen’s over-the-top mother, is a nationally known stand-up comic who sells out the room in Las Vegas but never before had been in a musical. The Hawaii-born Miss Settle, who decorated everyone within reach with leis supplied by her family (she has uncles in the D.C. area), had been an actress in a community theater in Las Vegas when she won the lead after trying out in Los Angeles with 1,200 others who turned out for the open casting call.

“Hairspray” composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman, who say they tailor the show to take advantage of vocal talents as they find them, credited Miss Settle with being a “phenomenal” R&B singer. (The duo’s next project is a musical based on Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie “Catch Me If You Can.”)

Rest assured, there is always a never-ending supply of wannabes who dream of a life in the footlights. During the performance the duo had sat near a 10-year-old girl “who was going crazy next to us,” Mr. Shaiman said. “She knew all the words, so we grabbed her and said ‘Want to go backstage?’ Her father probably thought we were kidnapping her.”

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