The Sunset Playhouse takes a trip back in time with its latest: Hairspray. The 2002 musical based on the 1988 John Waters film is set in 1962. The fun and classy, little allegorical look at the Civil Rights Movement plays across the stage of the Furlan Auditorium in a quick, little whisk of an evening’s performance. The endearing musical comedy is brought to Elm Grove with a pleasantly textured sense of passion and imperfection which suits the themes of the story quite well. Director L. Tommy Lueck brings the story to the stage with a fun, breezy sense of humor that is marred only a bit by the complexity of difficult sound design on a two-tiered set that poses all kinds of acoustic challenges. Beyond the occasional dropout in the sound, there’s a really enjoyable evening to be had in Elm Grove.
Emma Borkowski is deeply charming as Tracy Turnblad...a Baltimore girl who dreams of being on the local TV dance program The Corny Collins Show. Noah Maguire has an imposing sense of authority in the role of Tracy’s mother Edna, who discourages her from her dreams in order to shelter her from disappointment.
In the process of pursuing her dreams, Tracy comes into contact with black students who introduce her to a culture that she has been sheltered from. Jahbarri Bradshaw has a strong, warm presence onstage as Seaweed J. Stubbs--a friend Tracy meets in detention. Tracy’s best friend Penny (an endearingly anxious Amber Weissert) promptly falls for Seaweed. An invitation to visit Seaweed and his family also introduces formidably wise matriarch Motormouth Maybelle (Sharon Tyler) who encourages the integration. Tyler’s ability to assume authority onstage matches Maguire’s as the two matriarchs help march the heroes into conflict with a deeply segregated Baltimore in 1961.
In the current political climate, it is immensely reaffirming to see a tale of integration set in 1961. The Elm Grove production adds something of a weird social anthropological angle for those of us who are younger than so many Sunset Playhouse subscribers. The script is filled with comic references to the late ’50s/ early ’60s. No one in the cast is likely old enough to have remembered the era, but in a house full of baby boomers in the audience, it is aesthetically satisfying to hear so many pop cultural jokes from the era land so well. There’s also a sense of disappointment in the era that’s palpable in the audience.
There’s that distinct subtly groaning sense of disgust for the casual racism prominent in 1961 that is delicately brought to the stage in the musical. In an era where racism seems to be creeping back around the edges of contemporary culture, it’s kind of a relief to be reminded of how far society has come from the safe and cozy confines of an enjoyable musical. With music inspired by the era with an engaging story of love and acceptance, Hairspray finds a very appealing natural habitat onstage in Elm Grove.
The Sunset Playhouse’s production of Hairspray continues through August 11 at the Furlan Auditorium on 700 Wall Street in Elm Grove. For ticket reservations and more, visit the Sunset Playhouse online.