'HAIRSPRAY': Lillian Castillo and Tommaso Antico star in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's production.

The musical “Hairspray” is, in many ways, about progress. It’s also about big hair and about a man dressing up as a woman and about Baltimore. But progress in “Hairspray” is represented by the integration of The Corny Collins teen dance program (though the real-life teen dance program the musical was patterned after wasn’t successfully integrated). Progress at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, which is staging a truly exceptional production of “Hairspray,” is measured in a different and harder-to-quantify way. But “Hairspray” at the Rep feels like real progress — perhaps it’s the glow coming off of the company’s successful capital campaign. More likely, it’s that the Rep has just become better at big musicals. “Hairspray” — a great vehicle for that particularly hard-to-find performer, the singer/dancer/comic — needs a dance floor full of these types and the Rep finds them.

“Hairspray” is based on the 1988 film by the gleefully trashy John Waters. The story of Baltimore teen-ager Tracy Turnblad, the stout heroine (played with infectious enthusiasm by Lillian Castillo), is part Cinderella, part Civil Rights struggle and part Waters’ corn-fed, all-American vulgarity. Tracy’s parents are, after all, the gold-hearted owner of a joke shop and a transvestite. Edna Turnblad (played at the Rep by D. Scott Withers) has been historically played as a woman by men, including John Travolta in the film adaptation of the musical and Waters’ late, longtime collaborator Divine in the original 1988 film. ”Hairspray” could so easily go off the rails and be too campy. But Withers, along with the rest of the production, doesn’t go that way at all — there isn’t any winking at the audience. There are plenty of laughs to be sure (and some jokes that fall flat) but this production is invested in the story it has to tell and in the songs it has to belt out. Clearly directors and choreographers Robert Kolby Harper and Michael Barnard have the cast and designers walk this narrow line so that investment pays off again and again. Among the many notable turns in this “Hairspray” is the one by Arkansas native Katie Emerson, who, as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, gives one of the funniest performances you will ever see. As the pig-tailed Pingleton, Emerson moves as if her arms and legs are on hinges. It’s such an imaginative take that it’s almost hard to watch anybody else when she’s on stage. Rick Qualls as Corny Collins has a huge voice that commands attention from the first note. Lavon Fisher-Wilson as Motormouth Maybelle brought part of the audience to an early standing ovation after her incredibly stirring “I Know Where I’ve Been.” But the complete, sustained ovation came at the end and it was well earned.  


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