An Exhilarating “Hairspray” from Artistry Hits the Crossgender Jackpot!

Photo by Vicki Madsen.

Photo by Vicki Madsen.

Hairspray is one of those musicals that is often considered fluff. However, when done with heart, it can become a labor of love that makes you wanna rise up and dance for universal harmony. Filmmaker John Waters’ sassy tale of a high school girl in 1962 who defies the beauty myth foisted on high school girls and the compulsion to be “popular,” may well be taking mythic proportions itself. Just check out its musical version by Artistry, the theater company at Bloomington Center for the Arts*, where director-choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell delivers a joyously breathtaking rendition of the tale of outsider Tracy Turnblad and her quest for desegregation and to “get the guy” in the end.

Gracie Anderson bowls us over with an exuberance and openness seldom seen on stage. She’s a powerhouse. Moreover, Anderson is charmingly supported by Nicholas Kaspari, the handsome, hence “unattainable” boy of her dreams, Link Larkin. Artistry also hits the crossgender performance jackpot with an endearing Brandon Caviness as Edna, Tracy’s “regular Jane” mother, a marvelously madcap Megan Kedrowski in various goofy male roles, and Bey Jackson as a show-stopping Motormouth Mabel.

Photo by Vicki Madsen.

Photo by Vicki Madsen.

Mark O’Donnell’s book has this magical way of being simple, yet profound. Peyton Dixon’s Seaweed, one of the “bad kids,” who just happens to be black, is both vibrantly hilarious and touchingly sweet. Zachary Colton Schaeffer is terrific as Corny Collins, host of a local Baltimore television show akin to American Bandstand. Alan Holasek brings sweet humility to Wilbur, Tracy’s dad — a man with total faith in his daughter’s will to dream big.

Zaniest of all is the fabulous, and I mean FABULOUS Wendy Short-Hays as the narcissistic Velma Von Tussle, an aging beauty queen/televison producer obsessed with her daughter’s upward mobility. Velma’s stage mother relationship with her even more narcissistic offspring, Amber (a deliciously catty Angela Steele), not only makes for big laughs, but they buttress the musical’s subtly fierce commentary on socio-economic class among whites and the systemic racism of social climbing whites.

Something beautifully haunting is Hairspray’s music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Whitman and Shaiman. These are tunes created just for the musical but their sound, rhythm, and spirit spring uncannily from sounds that seem to have spirited forth from the early ’60s. It’s as if they’ve been channeled from some dimension connected to that time. Artistry’s legendary music director, Anita Ruth, in top form, captures this to utterly exhilarating, if not numinous, effect.

There is a spine-tingling sense of how African American music streams would come to infuse the larger pop culture rock sound of the unfolding 1960s. This is lived into by Dixon, Jackson, Falicia Cunningham, Michael Terrell Brown, Kayla Jenerson, Marisa B Tejeda, Emily Madigan, Alexander Johnson, and the charming Kennedy Lucas who seems to be the youngest member of this superlative interracial cast.

Photo by Vicki Madsen.

Photo by Vicki Madsen.

This Hairspray‘s splendidly stylish designs add to the musical’s emotional, if not spiritual, uplift: Ed Gleeman’s explosively colorful costumes, Paul Bigot’s glorious wigs and makeup, and Erica Zaffarano’s gorgeous storybook set that accommodates Ferrell’s beguiling choreography and its superb use of space.

As for Ferrell’s choreography and his dancers: out of sight! Snobs who pooh-pooh the idea of sock hop dance style as being childish will have to eat their words. The dancers lift the sock hop approach to the level of first-rate modern dance. When you attend you will see a dynamic young dancer, Luke Tourville, as IQ, who crackles like a flash of lightning.

*previously known as Bloomington Civic Theatre

Through Sept. 13
Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd., Bloomington

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