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'Hairspray' will rock your socks off

Get ready to rock and roll and laugh the night away at "Hairspray," Oregon Shakespeare Festival's big Broadway musical for the 2019 season.

The show opened last week in the Angus Bowmer Theatre and fills the air with talent, inclusivity and a not-so-nostalgic look at the 1960s.

"Hairspray, the Broadway Musical" premiered in 2002, based on John Waters' 1988 film and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Waters dramatized a 1960s televised teen dance show that shut its doors rather than integrate. Waters softens and humanizes the controversy by refocusing attention on a young, heavyset woman, a rabble rouser who wants to dance, wants to love and be loved, and believes that segregation has no place in multicultural, multiracial Baltimore.

A single giant, mobile structure was the primary set device, a building rotated to change scenes and offer doors, windows or rooftops for each as needed. The narrow brick building and Coca Cola ghost sign was delightfully reminiscent of Ashland’s Peerless Hotel, though the show is set in Baltimore, Maryland.

Katy Geraghty has the lead role, and her performance as Tracy Turnblad is spectacular. There isn’t a misstep among the many she danced nor a hair out of place as she did so thanks to a rat comb, head band and lots of — you guessed it — hairspray. Geraghty as Tracy exhibits a spunky determination to dance with her Black friends on the Corny Collins Show, and her dreamy love scenes are hilarious. Geraghty had a head start on the role thanks to an earlier run as Tracy at the Argyle Theatre last year in Long Island, New York.

Like it or not, Divine and John Travolta as Edna Turnblad; Jerry Stiller and Christopher Walken as Wilber Turnblad; and Nikki Blonsky and Ricki Lake as their daughter, Tracy, are burned into our brains thanks to the 1988 and 2007 “Hairspray” films. Happily, Daniel T. Parker, David Kelly and Katy Geraghty have created new artistic templates for these three outrageous characters, freeing us to redefine lunacy in the best OSF tradition. David Kelly, perfectly cast as Wilbur Turnblad, brought out his inner lunatic frequently throughout the performance. Wilbur is the proprietor of a joke shop called Har-De-Har, and it was clear that Kelly was as entertained with the gags as the audience, sometimes laughing so hard at fart cushions, bananas and squirts that he had to stop and regain his composure.

“Hairspray” has a huge cast, and everyone is a winner. Whether the ensemble is dancing or fighting or locked in the slammer, each carries his or her role with poise, possession and spectacular dance steps. Two standouts are Luke Hogan Laurenson, who as Spike is likely to jump out of his wheelchair he’s so excited to dance, and Zahra Detweiler, who as Robyn watches the action closely as she moves to the grooves.

Suitably nasty for their roles, so much so that you want to slap the two beauties upside their heads, were Kate Mulligan as Velma Von Tussle and Leanne A. Smith as Velma’s daughter Amber. The two are vicious, though wonderfully costumed and bewigged.

“Hairspray” is not for the weak of spirit, nor the overly sensitive. The play is crammed with fat jokes, racial slurs, comments that denigrate others and language that is generally cruel and thoughtless. That’s creator John Waters for you, pushing boundaries and forcing something uncomfortable into your frame of reference. The words are offered naturally, spoken so easily as they might have been in an earlier time, but today that language is shocking. “Hairspray” is one more reminder that today’s public discourse is often uncivil and disrespectful, and as director, Christopher Liam Moore is smart to bring this issue forward.

Moore foregrounds inclusivity with “Hairspray” in every respect: While body size is most evident, class, wealth, clothing, race, gender and physical ability are all front and center. The in-crowd ostracizes and humiliates those who are different in any way, and every day is a “white day,” leaving no days for any others. Waters used these conflicts to bring home a rational demand for integration, but Moore broadens the interpretation.

Ability figures into the production, not only as a qualifying talent (if you can dance, you may be accepted) but as a means of inclusion.

Moore’s interest in “Hairspray” stems from early experiences working with differently abled children, and his son’s work to bring students with disabilities into the Ashland High School theater club.

Fans of Waters have a near perfect recall of every “Hairspray” scene in film or on stage, every dance step and every musical note. The Guardian calls Waters “the pope of trash” and the “prince of puke.” Waters has an insane brand of humor and a weird cult-like following. Like at the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the audience joins in the 2019 OSF production of “Hairspray” with shouts of anticipation and appreciation, huge bellowing laughs and dance moves, too. Thankfully, there’s no throwing in the Bowmer, just solid gold theater.

“Hairspray” runs about 2 hours, 35 minutes with one intermission. The play continues in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 27, and is suitable for all audiences. There will be a sign-interpreted performance May 24. For tickets and more information, see OSFAshland.org or call the box office at 800-219-8161.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Corrections: A sentence that incorrectly characterized Jenna Bainbridge's disabilities as part of Moore's direction in a previous version has been removed. She is partially paralyzed from the waist down because of a spinal cord injury. Though unintentional, the mischaracterization was insensitive and regrettable. The name of the actor who played Spike has been corrected. The writer sincerely apologizes for the errors.

Daniel T. Parker is Edna Turnblad, center, and Katy Geraghty is Tracy Turnblad, right, in "Hairspray." Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival