An irresistible score combined with an outstanding cast make the Wheelock Family Theatre’s production of “Hairspray” a highlight of the theater season.
Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman’s musical adaptation of John Waters’s 1988 movie celebrates individuality in all its glorious forms. Shaiman’s rock score references just the right musical themes from the 1950s and ’60s while making fresh new songs that serve the musical theater storytelling format. Wittman’s lyrics are hilarious, working period-specific pop culture references into rhymes that also move the story along and develop this quirky crowd of characters.
And what a crowd they are. Director Susan Kosoff and musical director Matthew Stern have cast the show with a healthy mix of familiar faces and new talent to populate Baltimore circa 1962, and every performer seems to be inspiring the others to up their game. No fewer than three dozen performers sing, dance, and act up a storm on the Janie E. Howland’s brightly colored ’60s-style variety show set, and thanks to Kosoff’s direction and Laurel Conrad’s sleek choreography, these dancers make it look easy. Stern conducts a tight, six-piece band through the high-energy score with joyful ease.
Jenna Lea Scott (who was so good in last year’s Lyric Stage production of “Avenue Q”) delivers a Tracy Turnblad with the perfect combination of effervescence and sincerity without being cloying. Her Tracy, a big girl with even bigger hair, is as believable when she swoons over heartthrob Link Larkin as she is when she resolves to be judged for her dancing talent, not her plus size, on “The Corny Collins Show.” The earnest, unaffected way Scott turns Tracy’s demotion to special ed into an opportunity to make new friends, and learn some slick new dance moves, wins the audience’s hearts, to say nothing of her performance of “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “I Can Hear the Bells.”
Scott’s Tracy also has a warm relationship with her parents Edna (Robert Saoud) and Wilbur (Peter A. Carey), as well as her best friend Penny Pingleton (an outstanding Jennifer Beth Glick), which gives “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now” and “Welcome to the ’60s” a lot of heart — to say nothing of the soulful sound from the trio of Dynamites (Maritza Bostic, Ciera-Dawn Washington, and Kerri Wilson-Ellenberger).
Boston Conservatory student Michael Notardonato makes Link Larkin the perfect teen idol (with a killer falsetto), whose “It Takes Two” is the first of several show-stoppers. Despite his pop icon aspirations, his Link is grounded enough to fall for the no-nonsense Tracy, despite his role as arm-candy for Amber Von Tussle (Jane Bernhard), daughter of “The Corny Collins Show” producer Velma Von Tussle (Aimee Doherty).
Doherty has never sounded better (and that’s saying something), but she also makes the scheming Velma Von Tussle a charming villainess, and her castanet-like choreography for her “Miss Baltimore Crabs” nearly brings down the house.
There is not one weak link in this ensemble, so it seems almost unfair to single out performers, but Gamalia Pharms, a Wheelock regular, is inspired as Motormouth Maybelle, Jon Allen is a seductively loose-limbed Seaweed, Tyla Collier grabs our attention with her Little Inez, Cheryl McMahon is pitch perfect in multiple roles, and Mark Linehan is an appropriately slick Corny Collins.
“Hairspray” takes on some big issues, but does it with so much humor and optimism it will send you out of the theater singing and dancing for joy.