In “Hairspray,” idealistic Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad becomes famous for teasing and spraying her hair to gravity-defying heights.
That’s also a good way to describe San Diego Musical Theatre’s hilarious production of the comedy musical, which opened Saturday at the Horton Grand Theatre in the Gaslamp Quarter.
The effervescent production is so chock full of high hair, buoyant optimism, high-spirited dancing and uplifting songs that it practically levitated the audience to its feet after Saturday’s show.
The 2002 musical — which won eight Tony awards, including one for its director, former Old Globe chief Jack O’Brien — has been produced many times in San Diego. This might be the best all-around production yet.
The cast is excellent, the direction by J. Scott Lapp and choreography by Jill Gorrie are lively, thoughtful and detailed. Thanks to musical director Don LeMaster, all the voices are well-coached and distinct. The production design is first-class, and the intimate Horton Grand space is the perfect size for the show.
But there’s something else that gives this production inspirational power: its timeliness. The musical’s story — about Tracy’s determination to racially integrate the city’s dance party TV show in 1962 — seems unfortunately relevant in today’s increasingly divided America.
When powerhouse Eboni Muse delivered her character Motormouth Maybelle’s powerful civil rights anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been” on Saturday, every cast member onstage, black and white, had tears in their eyes.
Bethany Slomka returns to the role of Tracy for the third time, having played it before to much acclaim at San Diego Repertory and Welk Resort theaters. As before, Slomka’s a perfect fit for the bubbly, rabble-rousing, high-minded chubby character. But under Lapp’s direction, she’s funnier, more outspoken and definitely more overt in her gobsmacked attraction to TV teen idol Link Larkin, played by charismatic, hip-swinging Nickolas Eiter in a breakout performance.
The 24-member ensemble has no weak links.
In the cross-dressing role of Tracy’s laundress mom Edna, John Massey has a gentle sweetness and a flair for topical and naughty ad-libs. Consummate showman Steve Gunderson hilariously walks away with all his scenes as Tracy’s joke shop proprietor dad Wilbur as well as several other kooky characters.
Kenneth Mosley has incredible dancing and singing chops as Seaweed Stubbs, Tracy’s black friend and dance teacher. Emma Nossal is endearing as Tracy’s buddy Penny, who blossoms when she meets Seaweed. Zackary Scott Wolfe has charm and great comic timing as dance show host Corny Collins, who secretly shares Tracy’s integration dream.
As Link’s spoiled girlfriend Amber, Lauren King Thompso is crazy-eyed and scheming, and Eileen Bowman is kooky to the extreme as Amber’s mom Velma, who produces the TV show.
Mike Buckley’s quick-change scenery honors the Broadway original, Janet Pitcher’s seemingly endless wardrobe of retro costumes are fun and Andrew Orbison ably conducts the offstage orchestra.
“Hairspray” is very funny, but there are two points in the show where Lapp’s direction pack a punch. All the public crowd scenes until the end are racially segregated. And when Muse and the other black cast members sing about the troubles they’ve endured, all the white actors in the scene are frozen still, simply listening with sympathy. That’s a lesson America is still learning today.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 2.
Where: Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave., downtown.
Phone: (858) 560-5740