Review: ‘Hairspray’ at Theatre Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Review: ‘Hairspray’ at Theatre Aspen

The musical "Hairspray" is a family show and also a subversive epic of social outcasts. It's a celebration of early 1960s teen culture that pays tribute to the rock 'n' roll and Buster Brown-scuffing dance moves of the day while also staring down the era's segregation and bigotry. In tone, it's both sincere and satirical — by turns campy and unselfconscious.

This, of course, is why we love it. Like us and like the America it chronicles, "Hairspray" is a bundle of contradictions.

Theatre Aspen's exuberant production of the Tony-winning contemporary Broadway classic opened Wednesday and runs through Aug. 19 at the Hurst Theatre in Rio Grande Park.

It stars the magnetic young actress Taylor Hartsfield as Tracy Turnblad, the plump and peppy teen in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of getting on a local TV dance show and ends up as a crusader for racial integration. As Tracy finds love and fame and acceptance and social justice, she and this irresistible show will cure you (at least temporarily) of your 21st-century cynicism.

Hartsfield nails Tracy's sunny optimism and enthusiasm while infusing a charming awkwardness into Tracy's dance moves. She can rattle the mountaintops in her big solo numbers like "I Can Hear the Bells" and the opener "Good Morning Baltimore," but Hartsfield is also game as a team player.

She's surrounded by a feisty supporting cast. The standouts in the young ensemble are a charismatic Stephen Scott Wormley as Seaweed, star of "Negro Day" on "The Corny Collins Show," and Abigail Isom as his over-eager love interest and Tracy's bestie Penny. But everybody gets a moment to shine, from Denis Lambert's subversive spin on the Dick Clark-esque TV host Corny Collins to Tamara Anderson as Motormouth Maybelle (her gospel-tinged lament "I Know Where I've Been" is a showstopper) to Annabel O'Hagan as the odious bully Amber and Christian Probst as the cloying teen idol with a conscience Link Larkin to utility players Michael Gorman and Kayla Ryan Walsh, who show up memorably in multiple small roles.

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And Kevin Carolan is a scene-stealing one-liner machine in drag as Edna, Tracy's shut-in mother. It's become an iconic role, originated by Divine in John Waters' 1988 film,by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway and played by John Travolta in the 2007 Hollywood musical. Carolan's is a deeply empathetic Edna, performed with a heartfelt approach that translates well in the intimate setting of the Theatre Aspen tent. Edna's big number — the cute and ridiculous "Timeless to Me" duet with her gag shop owner husband Wilbur (Patrick Richwood) — brings down the house.

This Aspen production — directed by Mark Martino, who has become a master of the tent over the past decade — makes full use of the Hurst's thrust stage and aisles. High-spirited large ensemble numbers like "Without Love" and the finale "You Can't Stop the Beat" spill off the stage and into the crowd. For "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" — performed by three pairs of mothers and daughters — Martino has positioned actors on the stage and in each of the main aisles.

Paul Black's cartoonish sets, which arrive and exit through a retractable door that's plastered in early-'60s advertisements, are just over-the-top enough to situate us in Waters' bizarre and demented alternate reality but authentic enough to keep us grounded in the tumultuous historic moment of "Hairspray."

"Hairspray" has been a Broadway smash, a feature film musical and, most recently, a live television event. So chances are you already know some of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's songs, and you've seen some version of it before you walk into the Hurst. But you've never seen it quite like this. Theatre Aspen's dazzling cast and thoughtful creative team make it new.

atravers@aspentimes.com

If You Go …

What: ‘Hairspray,’ presented by Theatre Aspen

Where: Hurst Theatre, Rio Grande Park

When: Through Aug. 19

How much: $29-$100

Tickets: Theatre Aspen box office; http://www.theatreaspen.org

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