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Theater Review: “Hairspray” at Signature Theatre

This joyous revival of the Tony Award–winning musical based on John Waters’s film about 1960s Baltimore is a hoot for the holidays.

Motormouth Maybelle (Nova Payton) leading the ensemble with “I Know Where I’ve Been” in Signature Theatre’s “Hairspray.” Photograph by Christopher Mueller, courtesy of Signature Theatre.

☆☆☆ ½ stars

Growing up in the early ’60s, teenagers raced home from school to turn on the TV and watch “popular” kids dance on a set—a kind of Mickey Mouse Club with raging hormones and a beat. The Philadelphia version was called American Bandstand, and it launched the career of a hyper young Dick Clark. In John Waters’s Baltimore, as immortalized in his 1988 movie, Hairspray (starring a young Ricki Lake), the local equivalent was The Corny Collins Show with a cast as white-bread as Corny’s blond pomadour. When a plump, uncool Tracy Turnblad, who learned her dance moves from black students in detention, auditions for the show and suggests that the cast be integrated, the Baltimore crab cakes hit the fan.

Hairspray was adapted into a Tony-sweeping Broadway musical in 2002 (the cast included Harvey Fierstein, among others), and is currently enjoying a fun revival at Signature Theatre, with a winning score and a delightful star—Carolyn Cole is a terrific Tracy with a powerful voice and a bouncy body that makes even a bump-and-grind look wholesome. Washington veteran Sherri Edelen, as Velma Von Tussle, is Tracy’s perfect nemesis as the producer of The Corny Collins Show who’s determined to keep it lily white and a showcase for her daughter, Amber. Edelen gets to strut her stuff as a former beauty queen who reigned as Miss Baltimore Crabs, and she is just wonderful. It takes a lot to outvamp Edelen, but Nora Payton does it as Motormouth Maybelle, the black record store owner fighting to get more than a monthly “negro day” on TV. When she belts out “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful,” or the gospel-like “I Know Where I’ve Been,” the audience is hard-pushed to stay seated.

The irony is that neither Edelen nor Payton is supposed to be the red hot mama of Hairspray. In case you missed the original movie, the Broadway run, and the 2007 movie remake with John Travolta, this show has a big gimmick: Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad, is played by a man in drag. In Signature Theatre’s production, the man in the muumuu is our very own Robert Aubry Davis, whose distinctive broadcast voice is well known to music lovers and public television audiences of arts programs. One would think his larger-than-life personality would make him an ideal Edna. Alas, Davis is not musical. To say that singing and dancing don’t come naturally is to be kind.

Nevertheless, Signature artistic director Eric Schaeffer is a master of the musical and has created a fast-paced, high-stepping production with lots of style. Karma Camp’s choreography works wonderfully. The costumes are period-perfect, although Tracy’s school clothes looked more Catholic school standard than unstylish. And all of the hair could have been higher. “Haven’t you ever seen a real Baltimore beehive, hon?” But, as the song says, “You can’t stop the beat,” and you wouldn’t want to try. Hairspray is the perfect hoot for the holidays. See it and dance all the way home.

Hairspray is at Signature Theatre through January 29. Tickets ($62 to $86) are available through Signature’s Web site.