Hairspray may be environmentally problematic, but when it comes to social responsibility, Hairspray the Broadway musical has been delivering an important message for more than 15 years: that inclusion should be a matter of course and diversity should be embraced. Filmmaker John Waters was trying to make these points 30 years ago when his “Hairspray” movie was released and became a cult favorite if not a commercial success. With the arrival of the musical adaptation in 2002, which Waters signed off on, the messaging was wrapped in an audience-pleasing score by Mark Shaiman with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittmann bursting with teen rebellion, sexual innuendo and pop-cultural nods to the story’s setting in 1962 Baltimore.
The winning formula of song, dance, comedy and conscience persists in San Diego Musical Theatre’s production of Hairspray, directed by J. Scott Lapp. In spite of the Horton Grand Theatre’s uneven acoustics and a stage cramped for dance numbers of this show’s size, SDMT’s cast mines all this show’s empathic and joyful moments. It starts, as productions of Hairspray, always do, with an uproarious Edna Turnblad, a woman of great girth always played by a man. SDMT’s Edna is John Massey, who doesn’t disappoint. “She” has a veteran of local musical theater, Steve Gunderson, playing Edna’s joke-shop-owning hubby Wilbur. Bethany Slomka makes an, ahem, big impression as daughter Tracy, who in longing to perform on a teenage dance show on TV, takes up the cause of racial discrimination.
This Hairspray is populated by a slew of dependable musical-theater performers including Eileen Bowman as Velma Von Tussle, Zackary Scot Wolfe as TV host Corny Collins, and Debra Wanger, who makes the most of a small part. The ensemble as a whole is diverse and athletic during Hairspray’s dance numbers, choreographed by Jill Gorrie.
While Hairspray’s commentary remains unfortunately relevant, its early-‘60s name-dropping will escape younger theatergoers, those for whom Eddie Fisher, Perry Como and the Gabor sisters are head-scratchers. But patrons of all ages should appreciate the notions of love and acceptance of who we and others are. Unlike bows and plaid skirts, those never go out of style.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 8/15/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.