HAIRSPRAY, that saga of a plus-sized teen's improbable quest for love, fame and civil rights in 1962 Baltimore, boomeranged from film to stage and back in less than 10 years' time. Given the strengths of this season opener at Raleigh Little Theatre, that trajectory makes a lot of sense. Director L.D. Burris (who helmed last season's Once on This Island at RLT) propels a gifted cast through one of the company's better offerings in recent years.
A bubbly, strong-voiced Emma Wyatt carbonated the unsinkable Tracy Turnblad, Hairspray's central character. When the uncertain first moments of this production handed her an empty stage and a full house, Wyatt had to single-handedly carry opening number "Good Morning Baltimore" against Julie Florin's rock-solid orchestra. She did so admirably and never looked back, despite a miking glitch on Thursday night.
Fortunately, the rest of this show quickly filled in afterward. When Elizabeth Newton's set showed up in the second scene, we saw a sparkling silver send-up of low-grade local television in the 1960s. Florin's music direction guided strong leads and harmonies throughout Marc Shaiman's score. Given Burris' career as a choreographer, we anticipated and enjoyed the modern dance upgrades featuring Chris Daniels in musical sequences including "Run and Tell That" and the title song. Vicki Olson and wig designer Ann Boivin's costumes for Tracy and her mom, Edna (a winning Tony Hefner in the traditional drag role) were eye-popping.
Carrying a lifelong dream to dance on TV—and a torch for Link (Tim Malboeuf), the show's lead singer—Tracy and her geeky friend, Penny (Elin Waring) go up against the privileged, racist and svelte Velma Von Tussle (Natalie Turgeon) who produces the afternoon dance show. In her crusade to integrate the show by making its designated "Negro Day" more than once a month, Tracy enlists new friends, including a suave Seaweed (DaRay Graham) and his mom, Motormouth Maybelle (Tina Morris-Anderson).
Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book and Shaiman and Scott Wittman's sly lyrics poke snarky fun at pop music, social conventions and racial attitudes of the early 1960s. The happily-ever-after ending isn't much more ludicrous than all that comes before, leaving this fizzy soda-pop show a sweet but only mildly citric take on the '60s—as they should have happened, not as they did.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The overachievers."