Review: Barn Theatre’s ‘Hairspray’ is the perfect summer lift

There is perhaps no more perfect musical than “Hairspray,” the multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway hit adapted from the John Waters’ 1988 cult classic film.

In said film, a bubbly, pleasantly plump teenager in 1962 Baltimore transforms herself from high-school social outcast to local star on a TV dance show, and uses her celebrity to fight against exclusionary cultural appropriation and white supremacy for integration and to help marginalized people of color get a chance to show up and dance on the whitewashed Corny Collins Show.

It is winning in every possible way one can judge a musical. It opens with a big, bodacious number, closes with a bang that leaves you feeling lighter and humming a tune, and is filled with enormous, dynamic, colorful characters. It is of a particular cultural moment that speaks to the one in which we live now, facing down the hatefulness of bigotry without losing its sense of humor.

It has heart, it has grit, it has depth. It’s spunky and campy and soulful. It celebrates irreverence, and in the world of this show, the underdog rises. In fact, it’s everything we wish the world outside the theater to be.

Not only is it a perfect musical, but it’s a perfect fit for The Barn Theatre where Director Hans Friedrichs takes the show’s many iconic elements and explodes them to wonderful effect with the cast and crew’s exceptional talent — to what promises to be the well-earned standing ovation of every night’s audience in the two-week run.

With a tremendous cast, wonderfully bold technical elements and just the right amount of nuance amid the kitschy campiness, The Barn’s “Hairspray” is bigger and more fun than a foot-high bouffant secured with a giant bow and an entire can of Aqua Net.

In fact, Crysta Menefee Gsellman’s wigs with Taylor Burke’s fun ’60s costumes so beautifully complement Samantha Snow’s colorful and multifunctional set pieces to create place and character, they practically deserve top billing. But it’s the way the actors inhabit them, of course, that makes everything come alive. It’s how they move in and through the sets with Kasady Kwiatkowska’s excellent choreography that capitalizes on ’60s informal social dances with free-wheeling dramatic arms and swirling hips, yet takes them a step beyond to make them unique without being overblown. “The Stricken Chicken” and “Peyton Place After Midnight” are moves not to be missed.

And every member of this nearly 40-person cast gives a standout performance. Expressive, bright-voiced Rachel Grindle is an earnest Tracy who pairs wonderfully with heartthrob Link Larkin, captured with energy and heart by Ian Lah, as well as with kooky little spastic best friend Penny Pingleton — played hilariously by Kasady Kwiatkowska, who is also a delight and something of a sight gag matched with snake-hipped beanpole Este’Fan Kizer as Seaweed Stubs.

Other excellent pairings include Penelope Alex as righteous villainess and TV producer Velma Von Tussle, with her spiteful, mean-girl daughter Amber (Rachel Maher) as a sneering duo we love to hate; and Barnie favorite Robert Newman (perhaps best known for his 28-year award-winning stint on television soap Guiding Light) in drag as hausfrau Edna Turnblad is especially wonderful with Charlie King as husband Wilbur in “You’re Timeless to Me.” They bring working-class realness to the roles and move beyond caricature to establish complex characters and a sweet, evolving relationship.

Also notable are knockout performances from Shinnerie Jackson (seen on the Barn stage in this season’s “The Civil War” as well as an award-winning role in 2015’s “Ghost” among others) as self-described “big, blonde, and beautiful” Motor Mouth Maybelle, who speaks in rhymes and sings with the soul of Big Mama Thornton; and Michael Ray Fisher (also seen on the Barn stage in “Civil War” this season as well as in 2016’s “Little Mermaid”), Harvey, and Sydni Jackson as The Dynamites, the red-sequin-donned threesome that more than lives up to their name.

With so many distinctive moving parts, it’s a wonder the ensemble moves so seamlessly as one, though it’s no doubt thanks to Director Hans Friedrich’s clever staging, blocking and pacing in collaboration with the extraordinary design team and Music Director Matt Shabala with the surprisingly small six-person orchestra that creates a much bigger sound than one might expect, complete with the necessary rhythm and horns for an authentic “downtown” ‘60s R&B experience.

The Barn’s “Hairspray” is summerstock at its finest, taken to the next level with the kind of book and music that gives the usual light musical fare a little more bass, bottom and depth than one might expect. And as this season’s first grand musical, it is more than rising to the promise of its super-teased heights.

Barn Theatre
June 19-July 1