After Wright State University staged “Hairspray” in the fall of 2011, I didn’t think any theater troupe in town would touch the show for at least five years. The sheer electricity of that indelible production, which I saw three times, whisked me immediately back to July 26, 2002 when I saw a preview of “Hairspray” on Broadway before the critics heralded it as the hit it was bound to be. Even so, the Dayton Playhouse refreshingly and assuredly steps up to the plate to present a wholeheartedly entertaining version that certainly ranks among the best musicals the organization has produced.
Crisply directed by Tina McPhearson and set in1962 Baltimore, “Hairspray,” winner of eight 2003 Tony Awards including Best Musical, centers on spunky, plus-sized teenager Tracy Turnblad (an innately appealing Tamar Fishbein). Tracy’s humble world changes forever when she joins the merry dance troupe of the local “Corny Collins” TV show. Her lively personality and funky moves helps her catch the attention of the show’s heartthrob Link Larkin (the handsome, sensitive Ben Douglas), but situations escalate when she vows to racially integrate the program.
Fishbein charms throughout as Tracy evolves into a courageous visionary for equality, a key element deftly explored in Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s terrific libretto adapted from the 1988 John Waters film of the same name. There are occasional glimpses of exhaustion in her portrayal which diminishes her vocal capacity, but she’s an admirable singer nonetheless, particularly filling the dreamy “I Can Hear the Bells” and the reprise of “Good Morning Baltimore” with great tenderness. Fishbein is also wonderfully supported by Brian Sharp, warmly feminine, affably understanding and very funny as Tracy’s insecure mom Edna, and Jim Lockwood, who delivers one of his finest performances as Tracy’s kooky dad Wilbur. Sharp and Lockwood’s close-knit partnership culminates in a truly effervescent, meaningfully touching version of “Timeless to Me,” composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s nod to unwavering love.
An assortment of excellent featured turns are given by reliable triple threat Desmond Thomas as Seaweed J. Stubbs, knockout vocalist Crystal Williams as Motormouth Maybelle, the absolutely dynamic Kelli Locker as Velma Von Tussle (on par with Linda Hart who originated the role), the spirited Dean Swann as Corny Collins, the amiable Amanda Carter as Amber Von Tussle, the magnetic Amber Butler as Little Inez, the versatile Marabeth Klejna and Rod Wood in multiple roles, and an utterly hilarious Tori Kocher in a breakthrough performance as Tracy’s zany best friend Penny Pingleton.
The cohesive, sunny ensemble, energetically executing Annette Looper’s choreography flavorfully capturing the period, consists of Naman Clark, Malcolm DeSean Casey, Erica Savage, Sydney Thomas, Alyssia Blake, Andrew Reese Tomlinson, Alissa Peppo, Paige Combs, Daveed Abrams, Andrew Wood, Allison Eder, James Branham, Melanie Barrett and Zack Conway.
McPhearson’s impressive technical team includes scenic designer Chris Newman (colorfully recalling David Rockwell’s original work), costume/wig designers Steve Burton and Tim Grewe, and lighting designer Anita Bachmann. Musical director Judy Mansky leads a firm orchestra particularly accented by the skillfulness of drummer Thomas Varner.
Attempting a character-specific, ensemble-driven show like “Hairspray” is a huge undertaking for a community theater, but the Playhouse effortlessly rises to the occasion. Long before the cast says goodbye with the infectious “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” one of only a few songs in contemporary musical theater to live in the pop culture mainstream, you’ll be glad “Hairspray” returned with unbridled glee.
“Hairspray” continues through Sept. 22 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 75 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $17 for adults and $15 for students and seniors. For tickets or more information, call (937) 424-8477 or visit www.daytonplayhouse.com