'Hairspray' musical tracks social change of early 1960s - Albuquerque Journal

‘Hairspray’ musical tracks social change of early 1960s

The world has changed a lot since 1962, that final year before the postmodern world descended on us. One writer, half seriously, remarks that the “new era” began on a Sunday evening in 1963 when movies were finally permitted to show on Sundays at a South Carolina movie theater.

In any case, 1962 – the year that introduced the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, the year before the historic march on Birmingham and MLK’s famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” – was a remarkable year.

One salient marker for how much the world has changed since then is the musical based on John Waters’ sweetly subversive 1988 film “Hairspray.” For this 2002 musical, which won eight Tony Awards (including Best Musical), perfectly illustrates how the once-forbidden has entered the mainstream.

Taking place in Baltimore in 1962, the show features a plump high school girl named Tracy Turnblad who dreams of appearing on the Corny Collins dance show. Although she is perhaps the least popular kid in school, amazingly she gets her wish. Even more improbably, the Elvis-like heartthrob Link Larkin falls for her.

But this is just the start. For Tracy decides that African-American kids should get more than a token appearance on the show once a month. She risks losing Link, getting thrown in jail and losing her coveted place on the show to help her new friends, the black kids from the poor side of town.

This Broadway show with a social conscience is receiving a heartfelt revival at the Albuquerque Little Theatre, directed with aplomb by Henry Avery.

For those familiar with John Waters, it is no surprise that Tracy’s mom is played by a man in drag, which provides ample opportunity for sexual innuendo and double entendre. Joshua Vallano, who plays the hulking Edna Turnblad, must stand a full 12 inches above his acting partner, Dehron Foster, who plays Edna’s husband, Wilbur. Both actors fully mined the comic possibilities implicit in their parts and were especially good together during the hilarious duet “You’re Timeless to Me.”

Christy Burbank does an admirable job as Tracy, while Nicholas Handley is excellent as the compassionate would-be pop star Link.

There are many fine performances among the huge ensemble, but I would be remiss not to single out Michael Weppler as the unctuous Corny Collins. Weppler is fantastic in the part, simultaneously projecting compassion and narcissism. Emily Melville is properly shallow and selfish as Velma von Tussle, the producer of the Corny Collins show, while Kelli Ingle is quite good as her spoiled daughter, Amber. Nice work also comes from Verónica Baca, Paul Ashby, and Beth Elliot, who is wonderful in multiple roles.

Although the acting is generally very good, the singing is less than stellar. The exception is Latasha Whitmore as Motormouth Maybelle, a strong actor who also possesses a beautiful singing voice.

Avery does a wonderful job fully exploiting the expansive space of the Albuquerque Little Theatre, occasionally bringing the actors into the auditorium. The only problem was the amplified sound, which sometimes reverberated obnoxiously, while at other times the microphones would either go out or garble the dialogue. The only show I’ve seen at Albuquerque Little Theatre where I caught every word was “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and that was because the actors were not miked.

“Hairspray” is playing through June 19. Go to albuquerquelittletheatre.org or call 242-4750 for reservations.

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