Oh, if we could bottle the essence of sunny dynamo Tracy Turnblad, we could possibly bring about world peace — or at least light many candles against the dark.
Ryann Redmond, an animated sparkplug, leads an ebullient ensemble in the shiny, happy musical “Hairspray,” turning it into a brisk tonic capable of melting one’s troubles with a delightful injection of upbeat and offbeat.
The Muny production is an entertaining lovefest, yet, also underscores how bridges can be built by winning over people’s hearts and minds. The show appears light-hearted, but its message of tolerance resonates, smoothly conveyed through sharp, irreverent humor, winsome characters, and a catchy pop/rock score.
An enthusiastic audience danced in the aisles and left with “You Can’t Stop the Beat” and “Good Morning, Baltimore” swirling in their heads, if they weren’t already humming the tunes on their way out — and smiling at each other.
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What a fun show it is! Debuting on Broadway in 2002, “Hairspray” went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, ran for six years and was made into smash hit movie in 2007. With the passage of time, and the events of the past year, we relate to the parallels of the Sixties that the work depicts, perhaps with even more urgency now.
The year is 1962. Plus-size teen Tracy watches popular Baltimore teens cavort on camera on the white-only “The Corny Collins Show.” She gets a chance to dance, too, and is suddenly a sensation, her dream becoming a reality. Empowered to spotlight a talented group of African-Americans, her love of rhythm and blues music and indomitable spirit will help integrate the TV dance party.
She affects social change while falling in love with heartthrob Link Larkin (John Battagliese) and challenging mean girl Amber Von Tussle (Taylor Louderman) for the title of Miss Hairspray.
Equal parts romantic comedy, history lesson and call to action, “Hairspray” was first a cheeky 1988 film by audacious director John Waters that starred Ricki Lake as Tracy and drag queen Divine as her house frau mom, Edna Turnblad.
Edna is always played by a guy, and headliner Bryan Batt, memorable as Sal on “Mad Men,” easily slips into the role, displaying powerful pipes and a flair for comedy. He works superbly with Lara Teeter as Wilbur, who reprises the role he made his own in the show’s 2009 inaugural effort. Their chemistry is effortless, and their duet “You’re Timeless to Me” hits a sweet spot. Along with Ryann, the trio exudes warmth as a genuine family, who won’t extinguish their hopes just because they’re from the wrong side of the tracks.
Other standouts include Christopher J. Hanke as slick TV host Corny Collins, Charlotte Maltby as Tracy’s sheltered best friend Penny, and Gerald Caesar as easy-going Seaweed. Liz Mikel, last seen in “Seussical,” brought down the house as Motormouth Maybelle, singing a moving “I Know Where I’ve Been,” the night’s best number.
The lively music by Marc Shaiman is crisply presented, and the lyrics, with co-writer Scott Wittman, are flecked with wry observations and clever turns of phrase.
The musical’s vibrant look is pulled together by the dream team responsible for last season’s whimsical, heart-tugging “Seussical,” winner of multiple awards from the St. Louis Theater Circle. Director Dan Knechtges, who also choreographed the snappy dance numbers with Jessica Hartman, fluidly moves the action but doesn’t skimp on emotional connection.
The colorful confection is enhanced by Robert Mark Morgan’s bright retro scenic design, creatively detailed, and boosted by the LED screen’s transformation into a vintage TV set, with video design by Matthew Young. Costumes are based on William Ivey Long’s original designs, but Leon Dobkowski created additional outfits people could shimmy and shake in, and all the fashions pop with pizzazz. The bouffant hairstyles set a playful tone, and the wig design by Leah J. Loukas deserves a special mention.
Whether you watched “St. Louis Hop” or MTV’s “TRL,” this blast from the past is sure to be enjoyed. The energy and goodwill are contagious. “Hairspray” has a good beat and you can dance to it! “Welcome to the ’60s!”
At a glance
Where: The Muny in Forest Park
When: 8:15 nightly through Tuesday
Box Office: 314-961-0644