Arts & Culture

High-energy 'Hairspray' at PCPA

Sam Zeller and Bree Murphy in PCPA Theaterfest’s production of ‘Hairspray.’
Sam Zeller and Bree Murphy in PCPA Theaterfest’s production of ‘Hairspray.’ PHOTO BY CLINTON BERSUCH

On Sunday afternoon, as the “Hairspray” cast came out for curtain calls, the audience—nearly a full house — rose to its feet, applauding enthusiastically, cheering and whistling.

It was as though people had absorbed the energy of the show and wanted to give some of it back to the performers. Some people were dancing as they exited the theater, and I heard a man say, “Wow, I’m exhausted.”

Director/choreographer Michael Jenkinson has a way of transferring his own energy to his cast. A great dancer himself, he seems to inspire his ensembles.

“Hairspray the Broadway Musical” is a period piece, and that’s a good thing. “Hairspray” is set in 1962 Baltimore, a time of strict segregation, and if anyone had suggested that a man of color would someday be president of the United States, the answer would have been, “When pigs fly.”

But it was a pivotal time, and the “Hairspray” heroine is a 16-year-old girl who wants to change things. Tracy Turnblad is chubby, and in her school that’s almost as bad as being black. Although she is ridiculed, she is spunky and self-confident, and she wants to dance on a local TV program, (sponsored by a hairspray brand) demonstrating the moves she has learned from the black kids in after-school detention.

When she does get on and becomes somewhat of a celebrity, she decides to try to integrate the show. The black kids had been allowed to dance one day a month on “Negro Day.” When she announces her plan, one kid says, “If you dance together the only show you’ll get on is the 11 o’clock news.”

“Hairspray” was a film by John Waters first, then an award-winning Broadway musical, then a film again.

The two most memorable characters throughout its history, described by Waters as “the fat girl and the drag queen,” are Tracy and her mother Edna, who is always played by a man. Divine played her first, and John Travolta played her in the 2007 movie.

In this production, Sam Weller makes her bigger than life, in many ways. He’s terrific. Josh Machamer plays Tracy’s dad, half the size of his wife, and their interaction has a certain charm, especially as they sing and dance “You’re Timeless to Me.”

Bree Murphy is well cast as Tracy —plump and pretty, with a fine voice. She’s a good dancer as well as an excellent actor. Her antagonists are Amber Von Tussle, played snootily by Jillian Van Niel, and her mother, even more snooty, played by Allison F. Rich. They make fun of Tracy at every turn and are horrified by the idea of even speaking to a black person. They too are well-cast and well-coiffed, blonde and costumed to appear as white as they can be.

Tracy’s black friend, Seaweed, is played well by Sterling Sulieman, and Cicily Daniels is dynamite as his mother. She has a powerful voice and charismatic presence.

Link Larkin is the featured singer on the TV show, as well as Tracy’s heartthrob and Amber’s boyfriend. John Keating is good in the Elvis-like role. George Walker plays Corny Collins, the colorful TV host.

Natasha Harris is cute as Penny, Tracy’s kind of vague best friend who falls for a black boy in a romantic subplot.

It’s not possible to mention everyone in the cast and ensemble of about 30, but they all deserve accolades. The singing and dancing of the era includes rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll and Motown. Joanna Jones, Kathryn McCreary and Katrina McGraw are a Supremesstyle trio.

The dancing in the big production numbers is awesome. Callum Morris is musical director, DeAnne Kennedy is scenic designer and Frederick P. Deeben is costume designer.

The show is a family entertainment. It’s laced with comedy, especially when mom Edna is in the spotlight, with some funny references to trivia of the time and a few off-color inferences, but the basic story is serious — and thankfully, a slice of American history.