Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Of Drag I Sing!

(The finale of "Hairspray" at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Photo by Kathy Sandham.)
You might as well don your lime-green flip flops and ride your Schwinn over to Beck Center's production of "Hairspray." The evening overflows with pleasures akin to a tall glass of strawberry-watermelon Crystal Lite on a humid summer day - wonderfully refreshing in myriad fruity, artificial ways. This 2002 musical is taken from John Waters' 1988 ode to chubby girl-power, desegregation and early '60s fashion faux pas. Waters is America's own heart-of-gold cinematic flasher, sort of a Tourette Norman Rockwell indulging in pastel,  subversive Americana ranging from drag-queen housewives to pink flamingos, all utilized to champion the obese and disenfranchised.

After almost a decade, "Hairspray" is joining the ranks of "Bye Bye Birdie" as a perennial, warm-hearted teen romp spawning a superb movie adaptation and endless productions from civic centers to summer camps. Thanks to Martin Cespedes' homage-laden musical staging giddily merged with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's popsical score, the evening takes on the aura of a summer costume party, which is wildly appropriate in a show whose Big Mama is in reality a Big Papa. What makes the show so charming is the effortless manner in which it combines the bubble-gum fantasies of a fat girl who wants to dance on a fictionalized teenage TV dance show with the historical urgency of the early '60s Civil Rights movement, pulling off that rare tightrope walk of being profoundly silly.

(Tracy Turnblad's older sister, that forgotten inamorata of the '70s and '80s, better known as Linda Ronstadt.)
The most felicitous aspect of the Beck Center realization is the way every cast member suggests a past icon and every dance seems reminiscent of a beach-party movie, a cut scene from "Birdie" or a Michael Kidd frolic out of "L'il Abner." In synch with this approach is our heroine, Tracy Turnblad, played with melting ardor by one Brittany Lynne Eckstrom, who could be Linda Ronstadt's chubby little sister. In the same costume-party mode, Kevin Joseph Kelly's Edna Turnblad evokes Ernest Borgnine as McHale dressed for the Navy Drag Ball. Continuing the merry masquerade, we have a TV-show host, Corny Collins, played by a Pee-Wee Herman look-alike named Matthew Ryan Thompson; a teen hero, Link Larkin, played by Cody Zak as a lithe, young Val Kilmer; and a gospel diva, Motormouth Maybelle, played by Tina D. Stump as a jubilant cross between Hattie McDaniel and Aretha Franklin. And for pure comic eccentricity and charm, we have Anna Bradley's Penny Pingleton, looking like an eroticized Pippi Longstocking filching the evening with every gigantic crack of her bubble gum.

This is not to be thought of merely as an evening of period laughing gas. For the show, particularly in this incarnation, cherishes the Waters template of tolerance and inclusion, offering the same kind of delicious paradox as finding Granny in her bustier baking legendary apple pies in a leather bar.

"Hairspray" runs at Beck Center through Sunday, August 14. For tickets, call 216-521-2540.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad I checked out the blog! I've truly missed your various bon mots.