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For aspiring young musicians, there are hundreds of summer camps and programs across the United States where they can hone their craft and enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded persons. Not quite as many opportunities exist for those with musical theater in their blood who'd like to learn from professionals and experience the complete arc of a major production. One of those rare gems is PlayMakers Repertory Company's Summer Youth Conservatory. Not only do they attract those who want to be in the spotlight but also students who want training in actually shining the spotlight: it's an intensive program in all aspects of theater tech. Each summer, one major musical is presented. The 2014 production is Hairspray, and there is perhaps no better vehicle for a group of actual teenagers than this show, which revels in youthful exuberance, idealism, and playful conflict.
Hairspray began as a 1988 film written and directed by the distinctly non-conforming John Waters. This was the epitome of over-the-top campiness, yet it also had a sweetness and naiveté about it that strongly resonated with audiences. Adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, it went on to win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the following year.
Hairspray is set in a nearly completely white bread Baltimore, 1962. We immediately meet Tracy Turnblad (Rachel Musson) as she sings "Good Morning, Baltimore." Tracy is a typical "pleasantly plump" teenager of the time whose main interests are tending to her beehive hairdo, dancing, and watching the "dreamy" lead singer on the Corny Collins Show, a segregated TV dance show similar to American Bandstand in the 1950s and '60s. When it is announced that there will be auditions for a dancer on that show, Tracy is consumed with winning that coveted spot. Musson inhabits the role so completely and realistically that you have trouble imagining what she is like in real life. She grows with confidence after a somewhat restrained start, and there's no doubt that each successive performance will grow in professionalism.
There's more – much more – to the Turnblad family. Edna, the "mother," is played with a delicious, well-balanced blend of complete seriousness and high camp by Jack Carmichael. He looks as good as a real teenage boy can in a housedress, and he exudes a radiant sense of fun in this outlandish role. The nebbishy Turnblad father, Wilbur, is not quite as big a part as Edna, but Ethan Fox brings out the humor and even sexiness of this nerdy good guy. Together, in Act II, they perform one of the most well received numbers: a vaudeville-like love song, "(You're) Timeless to Me."
Like many musicals, there are basically two competing gangs. This set is as old as time and will probably never recede: basically, the alleged cool kids vs. the outsiders. The in crowd is headed by an icy mother/daughter combo of Velma and Amber Von Tussle. Sadie Frank and Ainsley Seiger portray, with perfect pitch bitchiness, the villains you love to hiss at who get their comeuppance at the end. Tracy Turnblad is not only an outcast as an oversized teen but also befriends and likes to dance with black friends. She even wants to take part in "Negro day!"
Even if you've never seen the movie or musical elsewhere, the storyline is as predictable as a familiar fairy tale, and there's no need for a "spoiler alert." Tracy and her group triumph, she wins Miss Hairspray of 1962, the Corny Collins Show is integrated and, best of all, the thin, pretty, popular girls are defeated and humiliated. Like the story, the music – composed by Marc Shaiman, although well-crafted and perfect for the time period – is a derivative of '50s Doo Wop and bits of blues and gospel. Music Director Mark Lewis, on keyboard, led a group of six other musicians who did a fabulous job both in performing the songs as well as not overpowering the singers.
Make no mistake about it, this is no dumbed-down, bargain basement production that only friends and relatives of the students in the show might feel obliged to attend. This is as complete and professional as any you'd see, including Broadway touring shows at DPAC. Director Desdemona Chiang and Matthew Steffens, her associate and choreographer, did a miraculous job of molding 30 students from 15 area high schools into a professional-level company for this run. When the full ensemble was on what is about a 25-foot square stage, they danced and sang as if they had all the room in the world. All the actors seemed at ease and at home with their characters; I did not sense any stage fright or holding back. Whether as soloists or part of the chorus, all sang their parts with good pitch and attention to the lyrics, although I can't honestly say that I heard any truly outstanding, memorable voices. Symone Crews, playing Motormouth Maybelle, came close to that with a foot stomping Bessie Smith-like blues called "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" to close the first act.
So, you can't get any more authentic than real teenagers who love singing and dancing playing the same, even if that was in the dark ages of 1962. Despite Hairspray dealing, in a limited manner, with heavy topics like race relations, segregation, bullying, and self-image issues, this is pretty much mindless fun with somewhat formulaic music – but, performed at such a high level as this Summer Youth Conservancy, sometimes that's as good as it gets, or needs to be.
The show continues through July 20. For details, see the sidebar.