Hairspray Dolls Up Phoenix Theatre

D. Scott Withers made me forget Divine.

That's not easy to do, and not just because I think rather often of the late cross-dressing actor who first played Edna Turnblad in John Waters' Hairspray. Withers' performance as Edna in Phoenix Theatre's Hairspray: The Musical was an entirely new creation, one that may not have eclipsed the original (or even Harvey Fierstein's Edna on Broadway), but that was so delightful to watch, I couldn't tear my eyes away. The actor, trussed up in a giant housedress and what appeared to be a girdle full of galoshes, consumed a stage so crammed with cool choreography and energetic performances that one might well have to see this production twice to catch everything.

Hairspray: The Musical is precisely the sort of multi-layered American musical at which Phoenix Theatre and director Michael Barnard excel. The tuner, based on Waters' 1988 original movie-with-music about segregation on a Baltimore TV dance program, is stacked with catchy tunes, campy characters, and just enough innuendo to give it an edge (although, at the Sunday matinee I attended, most of the Watersisms — references to hair hoppers, teenaged jezebels, and rats — received only confused chuckles from the audience).

Waters' original film didn't sidestep the irony of segregation and the impact of black rock artists on American culture, and Barnard's staging of Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book pay subtle homage to this, with fun bits (a vendor selling chocolate-covered bananas) and wider commentaries (like segregated curtain calls).

The tunes borrow the throbbing rhythms and sex appeal of '60s pop standards with a parodist's ear for the ridiculous, and Robert Harper's energetic choreography, some of it lifted from the Broadway staging, mirrors the fun farce of Scott Sittman and Marc Shaiman's lyrics. While too many of these swell synchronized numbers were performed straight out into the house — one of Harper's more unfortunate habits — his choreography still sparkles.

Several of the performances are equally polished. Lillian Castillo's Tracy is some kind of revelation, a charming whirlwind who hits every mark — and in a giant wig, too. Antyon Le Monte brings a likable adenoidal anxiety to Seaweed, a black kid with a crush on a white chick. De Angelus Grisby's performance of "I Know Where I've Been," a big, ballsy ballad late in Act Two, received a standing ovation at the performance I attended. And Toby Yatso's fabulously frenetic take on dance-show host Corny Collins comes as close as anything to stealing thunder from Withers' mesmerizing Mrs. Turnblad.

Ultimately, though, there's nothing so fun about this Hairspray as Withers, who provides the conviction and good humor he brings to all his performances. In a popular musical satire about small-town wholesomeness under siege, his frumpy housewife is a stunning spectacle.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela