Laguna Playhouse transports audiences back to the ‘60s with its infectiously tuneful, delightfully entertaining summer staging of the Best Musical Tony-winning Hairspray.

Based on John Waters’ 1988 cult film of the same name, the 2003 Broadway smash tells the tale of full-figured teenager Tracy Turnblad’s dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a 1962 Baltimore version of American Bandstand.

Anyone familiar with Waters’ movie or its Broadway musical adaptation (book by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, songs by Shaiman and Scott Wittman) knows that Tracy is the daughter of a woman of ample proportions and a heart of mush named Edna Turnblad, a role originated on film by John Waters muse Divine (an actor of the biologically male persuasion) and on Broadway by the one-and-only Harvey Fierstein.

Despite some extra pounds and a then shockingly progressive attitude towards integration, Edna’s pride-and-joy does indeed make that dream come true, leaving only two more tasks for her to accomplish: a) making “Negro Day” more than a once-a-month Corny Colins Show event and b) winning the love of local teen heartthrob Link Larkin. Since Hairspray is the quintessential happy-ending musical, there’s little doubt about our pleasingly plump heroine’s success in both endeavors.

Following 2015/2016 Laguna Playhouse stagings of Footloose The Musical and All Shook Up, director-choreographer Paula Hammons Sloan travels west for the third consecutive July to give Playhouse patrons yet another generation-spanning crowd-pleaser, one featuring an all-around splendid mix of local talents (happily a good deal more of them this time round) and equally talented East Coast visitors.

Southland favorite James W. Gruessing, Jr. fills Divine and Harvey’s sleeveless housedresses and sensible slippers quite fabulously indeed, his Edna endearing herself to us with equal parts height, heft, and heart, terrific comic timing, and a wining way with a song and dance, particularly opposite a warm and wacky Rick Grossman as her pintsized soul mate Wilber, with special snaps for the mismatched couple’s double-entendre-packed love-song/soft-shoe “You’re Timeless To Me.”

Nicole Powell makes for as sensational a Tracy Turnblad as I’ve seen, adding irresistible oddball quirks to the teenage tornado’s built-in charms (and some powerful vocals and dynamic dance chops to boot), and with teen-idol-appealing Tanner Callicutt as her silver-throated Link Larkin, no wonder Tracy is smitten.

And speaking of smitten, just as many love sparks ignite when a scene-stealing Kristen Daniels lets her freak flag fly as Tracy’s geeky, gawky, secretly gorgeous bestie Penny Pingleton opposite a winning Jovan E. Watlington as Seaweed J. Stubbs, the tall, dark, and handsome charmer of P.P.’s dreams.

Dynamic duo Allison Foote and Haley Chaney fume, fuss, and fight for as much fame as they can finagle as mother-daughter team Velma and Amber Von Tussel; Dwan Hayes brings Seaweed’s mom Motormouth Maybelle to sassy, brassy, big-voiced life, hitting some of the highest notes Laguna Beach has heard in the stirring “I Know Where I’ve Been”; a terrific Jared Kaitz gives Dick Clark a run for his money (and Tracy a springboard for success) as Corny Collins; and Daniel Berlin and Michelle Bendetti serve up one deliciously distinctive cameo after another as Hairspray’s Male/Female Authority Figures.

Providing triple-threat-astic ensemble support from start to finish are Marlena Becker (Shelley), Zack Blanchette (Sketch), Jayden Goodman (Brenda), Dereis Lambert (Duane), Nicole Morris (Judine, Cindy Watkins), Faith Nibbe (Little Inez), Michael Riskin (IQ), Andrew Ryan (Fender), David Šášik (Brad), dance captain Sydni Session (Kamilah, Lorraine), Essence Tyler (Shayine, Opaline), Katie Van Horn (Tammy), and Siena Yusi (Lou Ann), and never more so than when singing and dancing up storms to the Hi-NRG Sloan-choreographed “The Nicest Kids In Town,” “Welcome To The ‘60s,” “Can’t Stop The Beat,” and more.

Musical Theatre OC’s triple-module scenic design is more functional than fabulous, but Keith Lambert’s ‘60s costumes are winners each and every one (especially Edna and Tracy’s post-makeover looks), particularly as lit by Alex Crocker-Lakness.

Sound designer Mike Ritchey mixes amped vocals (kudos to musical director Michael A. Ferrara) and prerecorded tracks (a live orchestra is missed, but not deal-breakingly so), though more attention could be paid to insuring that mikes are switched on before performers launch into song.

Kelsey Gordon is production stage manager. Lauren Oseas is swing.

Hairspray is that rarity among 21st-century musicals, one that keeps on entertaining and inspiring year after year after year. Check it out at the Laguna Playhouse and you’ll see why audiences (and this reviewer) keep coming back for more.

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The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
July 12, 2017
Photos: Ed Krieger


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