BEVERLY — Back in 1988, few could have imagined that “Hairspray,” John Waters’ beloved offbeat, affectionately subversive film, would spawn a remake (2007, starring John Travolta), a live NBC production (2016) and a Tony Award-winning musical.
But here we are 30 years later, and his fictional story of heavyset teenager Tracy Turnblad becoming an unlikely Civil Rights champion by fighting to integrate the popular Corny Collins “American Bandstand”-like TV dance show is more popular than ever.
Sadly, it also shows that many of society’s ills evident in 1962 Baltimore, the show’s setting, are still around. The show slyly shares its message through humor and clever, upbeat songs and sensational dance numbers. No heavy preaching here.
The terrifically entertaining production of “Hairspray” at North Shore Music Theatre through Nov. 11 is a hoot from start to finish. It features a wonderful cast of characters who appear to be having as much fun on stage as those roaring with laughter in the audience. On Halloween night, Music Theatre owner Bill Hanney (dressed in an orange “Mamma Mia” Super Trouper disco outfit) and producing artistic director Kevin Hill (toting a bottle of rum and dressed as Capt. Morgan) helped set the mood.
Energetic Tracy Turnblad (Brooke Shapiro) and her BFF Penny Pingleton (Christina Emily Jackson) rush home from school every day to watch “The Corny Collins Show,” where an all-white group of attractive teens dance the mess around. Tracy has a crush on Link Larkin (Zane Phillips), the super-cute male star, and fantasizes about joining the show’s cast and winning his heart. When a female dancer takes a leave of absence “for 9 months,” Tracy is determined to audition, despite concern by her mom Edna (Blake Hammond) that her daughter will be ridiculed because of her weight.
The show’s racist producer Velma Von Tussle (Merrill Peiffer) and her self-absorbed daughter Amber (Marie Eife), who has been paired with Link, refuse to let chubette Tracy and black girl Little Inez (Nazarria Workman) audition. Tracy, punished by the principal because of her “inappropriate hair height,” spends a lot of time in detention, where she meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Stephen Scott Wormley) and other black teens who pass time by dancing to R&B “race records.” Seaweed’s mom, Motormouth Maybelle (Altamiece Carolyn Cooper), hosts the once-a-month “Negro Day” on the Collins show, and Tracy wonders why Seaweed and his friends can’t dance every day on TV. When Collins hosts the sophomore dance at Patterson Park High, he’s wowed by Tracy’s dance skills and adds her to the show’s cast. Romance ensues, between Tracy and Link, and Penny and Seaweed, with plenty of lively dancing, witty dialogue, social commentary and double entendres fueling the action.
Shapiro is a wonder as Tracy, bringing a wide-eyed innocence and fierce determination to the character. Her voice is strong and sure.
Hammond, a male playing the female role, much like Divine did in Waters’ film, rocks a series of house dresses. He and Philip Hoffman, who plays Tracy’s supportive dad Wilbur, are great together. Their love duet, “You’re Timeless to Me,” is a highlight.
Jackson is extremely likeable as shy, nerdy Penny; watch her facial expressions throughout, you’ll find yourself laughing. You’ll also want to hiss Peiffer every time her detestable Cruella de Vil-ish Velma steps onto the stage. Eife is fab as mean-girl daughter Amber.
Cooper’s soulful, powerful vocal on “I Know Where I’ve Been,” earns the night’s loudest applause. Wormley dances up a storm, and sparks fly between him and Jackson.
Phillips is solid as hunky Link; he’s at his best when he realizes he’s been played the fool by Von Tussle mère et fille and that his dreams of stardom are unlikely. Kevin B. McGlynn is a riot as the principal. Cheryl McMahon shines in a series of supporting roles. Marblehead native Jake Corcoran serves as dance captain, and Salem native Nate Bertone, a frequent NSMT collaborator, is assistant director.
NSMT’s “Hairspray” is plus-sized entertainment. The only concern: So much hairspray is applied to the ladies’ hair-don’ts, I fear the ozone layer is one step closer to depletion.