'Hairspray' is back where it started, in Baltimore

Watching "Hairspray" in a community theater ensures that every local joke will get a knowing laugh. Based on a John Waters movie, this Broadway musical has a lot of fun spoofing Baltimore circa 1962.

There are plenty of provincial laughs in the lively production at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, which is on the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.

The theater's location had this spectator anticipating the moment late in the show when it's announced that the hefty high school protagonist, Tracy Turnblad, has been awarded a scholarship to Essex Community College. When the opening night audience exploded with laughter at that line, it was but one of many times when laughter and applause greeted this delightful staging.

"Hairspray" surely qualifies as the most cheerful fictional examination of the civil rights movement. As it chronicles Tracy's determined efforts to get herself onto a TV teen dance program, it demonstrates that she's equally determined to persuade the TV show's administrators to allow blacks and whites to dance together on the air.

Another big part of this musical's humanitarian agenda is the pitch it makes on behalf of tubby Tracy, her even bigger mother, and plus-sized people everywhere. The weighty heroes go up against skinny villains.

Although the ideal Tracy might be a bit younger-looking and, umn, a tad heftier than Sarah Ford Gorman, this actor brings a lot of enthusiasm to the role. She also has a nice rapport with John W. Ford in drag queen mode as Tracy's amply proportioned mother, Edna, who irons clothes while offering homespun philosophy from the confines of her Formstone-fronted rowhouse. Ford has a great time throwing his weight around, and his booming baritone voice makes Edna a formidable activist.

Edna's adoring husband, Wilbur (Gary Dieter), is a funny little guy who runs a joke shop. Wilbur does not appear in many scenes, but he reinforces the sense of the Turnblads as a working-class family capable of holding its own against snobs, bigots and other not-nice people.

Some of these family scenes are set in a compact living room that's unfortunately placed so far back on stage that it somewhat hurts our emotional connection to the Turnblads. Director John Desmone admittedly has his work cut out for him when it comes to traffic management, because "Hairspray" constantly jumps around between the Turnblad house, the TV station studio, an inner city record shop and other locations. Nevertheless, this production places several scenes too far back on the stage.

The well-cast supporting roles include Anna Holmes as Tracy's socially awkward friend, Penny Pingleton; Elisabeth Johnson as the Barbie doll-pretty girl, Amber Von Tussle; Nancy Parrish Asendorf as Amber's ruthless mom, Velma; and Eleanor Lawrence Wyche as the black record store owner, Motormouth Maybelle.

Boosted by the full-sounding orchestra conducted by Tiffany Underwood-Holmes and the sharp choreography by Bambi Johnson, these actors are confident with their musical numbers.

Highlights include this production's Tracy tugging at our hearts with "I Can Hear the Bells;" Velma vamping her way through "Miss Baltimore Crab;" Motormouth Maybelle raising the roof with "I Know Where I've Been"; Edna and Wilbur expressing their love for each other in the vaudeville duo-style

"You're Timeless to Me," and most of the women ripping into "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now."

For all of the enjoyable scenes in this production, a few of the performances are slightly off. As Penny's prudish mother, Prudy, Tammy Crisp takes this already-caricatured role too far into cartoon territory. Christopher Council brings a bubbly personality to his role as TV dance show host Corny Collins, but his own footwork could be more fluid.

Shane Lowry is suitably handsome as Link Larkin, the teen angel for whom Amber and Tracy compete, but the actor's raspy singing voice tarnishes Link's appeal. And J. Hargrove needs to polish his line readings as Seaweed J. Stubbs, a young black hipster.

Although there are a few bumps along the way, this "Hairpsray" remains true to the spirit of its concluding number, the perky anthem "You Can't Stop the Beat."

"Hairspray" runs through Aug. 7 at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, at 7201 Rossville Blvd. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. There is also a Thursday performance Aug. 4 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20, $18 for senior citizens, $12 for children. Call 443-840-2787 or go to http://www.ccbcmd.edu/arts.

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