Hairspray Holds the Audience in High Spirits (4 stars)

“Hairspray” – Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan. Music by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman. Based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters. Directed by Susan Kosoff. Scenic design by Janie Howland. Choreography by Laurel Conrad.Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 The Riverway Boston, through February 23rd 


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I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the John Waters film “Hairspray”, but I remember being disgusted that the man who gave us such gross hilarity with “Pink Flamingoes” and “Female Trouble” was capable of producing a film with such – hope.  I longed to see Divine whining about her cha cha heels; instead, she was playing a kind, plus-sized mom who cared about her daughter and the battles she was waging against discrimination.   In comparison to Waters’s earlier work, the film seemed bland. What a pleasant surprise to see the Wheelock Family Theatre’s fresh and lively take on a feel-good story that unifies everyone onstage – even the baddies – with its infectious, inclusive fun.  Under Susan Kosoff’s tight direction, the show opens with an energetic rendering of “Good Morning Baltimore”.  Citizens of Baltimore are peppered in the aisles, dancing, going about their morning, and from that moment on, the show just moves.

Tracy Turnblad, a girl who’s big-boned and big hearted,  is played by the appealing Jenna Lee Scott, who manages to be optimistic and vulnerable at the same time.  Her best friend, Penny Pingleton, is played by the talented Jennifer Beth Glick, a small woman with a big, beautiful voice. The role of Edda Turnblad is always played by a man – another reason I hated the show initially; in a world where three roles for women over a certain age exist, does it HAVE to be played by a male?  But the incomparable Robert Saoud was just terrific, playing the role very naturally, so much so that I forgot he was in drag – I believed he was Edna.  As Corny Collins, the slick dance show host with a conscience, the smooth-voiced Mark Linehan had just the right amount of charm and cynicism.  Other standouts were Motormouth Maybelle, played by Gamalia Pharms, and Little Inez, played by Tyla Collier, whose vocals meshed beautifully during the Gospel-inspired number, “I Know Where I’ve Been”.  The nefarious mother-daughter duo, Velma and Amber Von Tussle, were played to nasty perfection by Aimee Doherty and Jane Bernhard, respectively.  Cheryl McMahon’s abrasive gym teacher made me cringe – I think I recognized her from my high school.   And Michael Natornado, as Link Larkin, proves himself to be a strong vocalist, particularly during his solo number sung to (and ultimately with) Tracy, “It Takes Two”.

I can’t say enough about the high school students of Wheelock Family Theatre’s “Hairspray” cast – Jessica Ayer, Nicholas Davis and Trey Gaskin – who danced and sang like pros. The brightly colored set, designed by Janie E. Howland, and flawless choreography, by Laurel Conrad, gave the show a light,  breezy feel, despite some of its darker themes of segregation and discrimination.  There’s a strong 60’s feel to the piece – Corny Collins smokes, for example, and the word “Ofays” is used by one of the teenagers to describe a white gathering.  Some of the sexual jokes may be over younger audience’s heads, but the fourteen year old boy I brought with me (against his will, mind you) was rueful during intermission – “I really like this, Mom”. Me too.  For more info, go to: