Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of Much Ado About Nothing
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, and director Eric Schaeffer have created a bright, effervescent production of Hairspray as a joyous holiday gift to the Washington community. The colors are vivid, the singing is strong, and the performances never let up from the opening moment, when a trio of window washers show off their Motown moves as Tracy Turnblad (Carolyn Cole) prepares for her day in a toxic-looking cloud of hairspray.
Daniel Conway's industrial scenic design evokes the gritty side of 1962 Baltimore with its metal bridge (the nine musicians perform from behind a scrim), sliding garage doors, and staircases on pulleys. Seating on three sides of the MAX Theatre adds to the intimacy of the production, along with performers entering and exiting on two aisles through the audience.
As in John Waters' original 1988 movie, the Tony Award-winning musical from 2003 follows Tracybig body, big heart, big hairas she finds success on a local television dance show, then aims to bring her African-American friends onto the show more often than their allotted once a month. (In Tracy's words, "I want every day to be Negro Day.") Along the way, she takes on spoiled Amber Von Tussle (Erin Driscoll), whose mother (Sherri L. Edelen) owns the television station, as both star of "The Corny Collins Show" and the girlfriend of aspiring rock singer Link Larkin (Patrick Thomas Cragin).
The cast members, a combination of Signature regulars and newcomers, sparkle. Cole demonstrates a mixture of charm and determination that suggests a smiling Sherman tank; Cragin shows how Link covers up his own insecurities by playing the role of "rock star" with his every step and pose; Driscoll and Edelen are gleefully nasty; Lauren Williams is hilarious as Tracy's nerdy friend Penny Lou Pingleton, making her way with a slightly dazed look on her face; and Nova Y. Payton is by turns bawdy and dignified as Motormouth Maybelle.
Signature has made much of casting radio and television personality Robert Aubry Davis as Edna Turnblad, the drag role that won Harvey Fierstein a Tony. Davis has toned down his stentorian announcer's voice and assumed a Baltimore accent, but his performance is more endearing than powerful; he is not an actor and makes little impression aside from his large physical stature.
Choreographers Karma Camp and Brianne Camp blend hip-swiveling dance moves (specifically by James Hayden Rodriguez as Seaweed) with such fun novelties as a kick line behind bars. The other member of the production staff who deserves specific mention is wig designer Anne Nesmith for the elaborately sculpted hairstyles.