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Theater review: 'Hairspray' at Carpenter Performing Arts Center

November 2, 2011 |  3:42 pm

After Act 1 of Musical Theatre West’s “Hairspray” at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, my companion said she loved it. Except … um … why was that man wearing a dress? Not sure I could explain the historical and sociopolitical significance of drag to a 7-year-old in 15 minutes, I said, “Because it’s funny?” (Thank goodness intermission ended before she could ask, “Why?” It just is!) 

In the 1988 John Waters film that inspired the Tony-winning musical, the drag queen Divine plays Edna Turnblad, mother of plucky, plump Tracy. Actors as diverse as Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta have filled the late cult star’s ample housecoat. Here, Jim J. Bullock commits to every step in Edna’s journey from grouchy laundress to diva, bringing down the house in “Timeless to Me,” her electrically campy duet with her much smaller husband (impish Barry Pearl).

“Hairspray” is a confection, as pastel and pillowy as the ever-climbing hairdos of the teen stars on “The Corny Collins Show,” the Baltimore dance program where Tracy (the perfectly adorable Victoria Morgan) gets her break. Tracy uses her stardom to campaign for acceptance of diverse races and girths, confronting anti-integration forces — Amber Van Tussle (Lauren Smolka), her rival for “Miss Hairspray 1962,” and Amber’s mother (Tracy Lore) — about as formidable as lemon extract.  

The play pays only perfunctory attention to narrative logic, and its conclusions are so long foregone that, by Act 2, whenever the cast launches into another big number to overcome somebody’s resistance, you may wonder if a catchy ring tone would suffice. The sets imported from the brief 2007 production at Luxor in Las Vegas are gorgeous and match the eye-pleasing costumes perfectly; not a single realistic note spoils the palette. 

But as both audience and cast know from the outset, “Hairspray” is an opportunity to sing, dance and poke fun at the 1960s, a goal put well within reach by Marc Shaiman’s likable music, Shaiman and Scott Wittman's witty lyrics and Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s frisky, fast and tongue-in-cheek (if not entirely coherent) book.

Director Larry Raben, musical director Dennis Castellano and choreographer Lee Martino have done the creators proud with this thoroughly enjoyable production. No cast member — including dreamy Derek Klena as teen heartthrob Link Larkin, onetime "American Idol" finalist Todrick D. Hall as Seaweed J. Stubbs, Erin Watkins as Penny Pingleton, the astounding Gwen Stewart as Motormouth Maybelle — is less than thrilling to see and hear. Plus there's a man in a dress. What more could anyone want in a musical?

-- Margaret Gray

“Hairspray,” Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Nov. 13. $20 to $85. (562) 856-1999, Ext. 4, or Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photo: Tracy Turnblad (Victoria Morgan, left) and her mother, Edna (Jim J. Bullock), take on the world in “Hairspray.” Credit: Ken Jacques Photography.