Also see Tim's review of Rock Doves
The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is a ridiculously catchy and clever salute to various 1960s pop styles, and the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan nearly matches it in invention, rarely failing to provoke laughs even when it slips into crassness and self-righteousness. The characters aren't realistic in the least, but the show's emphasis on the civil rights struggle of the era shows that it never forgets that there's something more important than being the best dancer in town.
The Walnut's cast is strongest in its supporting roles, giving plenty of talented actors a chance to shine. Where to begin? How about with Liz Kimball's moping, stoop-shouldered and hilarious performance as Tracy's best friend Penny, or with Neil Totten's lively take on Penny's loose-limbed savior, Seaweed. Denise Whelan and Kate Fahrner are delightfully evil as the racist villains, and Ben Dibble brings smarm and charm to the role of the oily TV host. Josh Young straps on an acoustic guitar and does his best Elvis as the hunk who croons the doo-wop styled "It Takes Two," and Joliet F. Harris stops the show with her emotional take on the gospel number "I Know Where I've Been." Domonique Paton displays an impressive belt as Seaweed's sister, and Connie Shafer is nicely showcased in a number of acerbic supporting roles.
Are there any failings? Well, since Hairspray focuses on the eccentric Turnblad family, I would have appreciated a family that I could root for more. Amy Toporek (as Tracy) and Michael Walker (who performs in drag as her mother Edna) sing and dance well, but they don't quite have the star power that their outsized roles deserve. As dad Wilbur, Peter Schmitz overdoes the Ed Wynn-style wackiness; his Wilbur lacks the sweetness that Dick Latessa brought to the role on Broadway. Mary Jane Houdina's choreography is excellent, although too many of the numbers take place near the front of the stage before sliding doors that don't give the dancers enough room to strut their stuff. Director Abbott rushes the cast a bit too quickly through some of the book's more vicious, John Waters-style jokes. Finally, I've never been happy with the show's ending, which crams in the only two sub-par songs ("Cooties" and the title song) on the way to a ridiculous and too-raucous finale.
But these are minor complaints about a "feel-good" show that actually does make you feel good. Hairspray spoofs the '60s and its styles but with a lot of affection and intelligence, which is what makes it so rewarding and lovable.
Hairspray runs through January 4, 2009 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $70, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.