Arts & Culture » Theater

The Last Dance: In Hairspray, the Muny's season finale, youth is served


It has been a summer of passages in Forest Park. Seven weeks ago the season began with a stellar production of 42nd Street, a nostalgic tap-dancing extravaganza geared to the Muny's loyal (if aging) subscribers. This week the season concludes with the debut of Hairspray, an at times deliriously cyclonic danceathon that leaves those gray-haired subscribers gasping for breath as it skews to a younger crowd. The message is clear: If the 91-year-old Muny is going to survive, it will of necessity be gravitating to supercharged shows like Hairspray. We can only hope that those future productions are as relentlessly entertaining as this paean to beehive hairdos and aerosol spray.

Yet like 42nd Street, Hairspray is selling nostalgia. It is set in June 1962 in an innocent (though segregated) pre-assassination world. JFK and Jackie, both lithe and thin, still hold court in a Camelot of their own making. Sixteen-year-old butterball Tracy Turnblad (Joline Mujica, adorable) dreams not of joining the Peace Corps but rather of dancing her chubby little heart out on a local Baltimore TV show. By evening's whirligig end, the indefatigable Tracy integrates that dance show and captures the heart of its lean teen heartthrob (the deft Constantine Rousouli). "Isn't that too cool?" Tracy asks with the naiveté of a plump Cinderella. You bet it is.

We could carp about sets that manage to be both garish and humorless, a lumbering Muny stage that can barely keep up with the evening's high-tech needs. Yet any deficiencies are diminished by the sheer energy that emanates from the spirited cast. Director Matt Lenz and choreographer Michele Lynch have been with Hairspray for years; they know it inside out. They have solved some problems and chosen to ignore others. Although many of the principals are veterans of the long-running Broadway production and its numerous offspring, the ensemble is not. Lenz and Lynch have drilled the Muny dancers so that Jerry Mitchell's original Broadway choreography looks as tornado-like as ever.

Even in absentia Mitchell is the real star here. Yes, the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are suffused with a sunny bravado, and yes, the book by Mark O'Donnell and the venerable Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers) delivers a veritable onslaught of solid laughs. But it's Mitchell's rigorous choreography that blows our minds and leaves us exhilarated. "We came to dance," the segregated Seaweed (the dynamic Christian Dante White) remarks in the understatement of the evening. Dance they do. The entire ensemble deserves unstinting credit for some spectacular work here.

As Edna Turnblad, Tracy's endearing blob of a mother, Paul Vogt is an audience pleaser. In the 1988 John Waters film upon which the musical is based, Edna was played by a female impersonator; so it will always be, though I don't quite know why (except that it adds to the evening's unreality). But the real surprise here is not Vogt, who has played Edna for hundreds of performances and knows what he's doing, but rather Lara Teeter as Edna's meek husband.

Although Wilbur is usually portrayed by a non-dancer, no one will ever be able to accuse Teeter of not being able to dance. Spry as a Slinky, he slithers across the stage as if to the Muny born. Thanks to Teeter, we now know from which parent Tracy inherited her dancing genes. As he and Vogt sidle up together for their show-stopping Act Two duet, "Timeless to Me," the evening's youthful momentum is put on pause. We are allowed to take a long deep breath and luxuriate in watching two savvy pros fill the stage. The number is indeed timeless; it's almost as if we're back at 42nd Street, witnessing two vaudevillians do the buck and wing. So yes, another passage here. And something new for Hairspray: The addition of a svelte dancer to "Timeless to Me" makes an already clever song a Muny moment to cherish.

Click here for a complete list of St. Louis theater capsules.

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