The afternoon following the opening of the Broadway by the Bay’s production of Hairspray, emails began to fly: “it’s not ‘the-a-tuh,” remarked a fellow critic, but it is “absolutely fabulous.” Opening with a high-energy “Good Morning, Baltimore,” the audience was so engaged, that this assessment seemed on the money. If you’re looking for entertainment on the Peninsula, the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, is once again the place to be.
Productions of Hairspray walk a tight line. Many shows portraying the early ’60’s seem as genuine as the Coca Cola commercials of the same era. The naiveté, self-absorption, and even optimism are colossally forced. Long on saccharine (or cyclamates) and predictable music, there’s a self-congratulatory subtext that “we’re smarter than this now,” as characters are little more than poorly-schooled re-enactors of someone’s fantasy of the period.
Broadway by the Bay’s production of Hairspray, balances such deficits against the greater weight of Edna Turnblad, played by bass-baritone Cole Grissom. Firmly anchoring this work, Grissom prevented it from dissolving into a paean to adolescent hormones, solipsistic platitudes, and simplistic politics. No two-dimensional cutout, Grissom’s Edna is the heart of the show, a one-man Greek chorus in drag, who’s the show’s truth teller, with a tongue firmly in cheek.
No production of Hairspray could be even modestly successful without a stellar ensemble. Here, as with previous Broadway by the Bay productions, the ensemble is one of strengths of this production. Tight choreography and vocal numbers kept this show pushing forward, and helped pick up the pace.
Lamont Jones, as Seaweed, balanced the more intentionally insipid “Nicest Kids.” He brings such a sinuous smoothness to the role, that he variably dominates whatever scene is appears in.
One disturbing element of this production was what seemed to be a calculated lack of edginess. At a time when the nation is roiled by the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, cutesy scenes over interracial dating in which Penny Pinkleton’s plaint that “my mom’s going to kill me” is turned upside down to “no, she’ll kill him” seem bizarrely tone-deaf to be played as comedy.
Hairspray is Broadway by the Bay’s first offering of 2012 and will be running through April 22nd. The fascination with early 1960s music continues with their next production, The Marvelous Wonderettes.