Given its humble origins as a campy 1988 cult movie (written and directed by John Waters), it’s a little odd that “Hairspray” seems to keep getting better — which is to say more relevant — with age. Who would’ve thought that what began as a generally carefree blast from the past, about an overweight high-school outsider in 1962 Baltimore who dreams of dancing on a local TV show (think “American Bandstand”), actually might have been ahead of its time all along?
A 2002 Broadway musical adaptation of the story (and a subsequent 2007 film version) added a score of lively songs by Marc Shaiman (music) and Scott Wittman (lyrics), with a script by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan that often feels downright prescient and up-to-the-minute — now more than ever, confronting issues of racial discrimination and equality first and foremost, but also addressing matters of bullying and body-shaming, and espousing the importance of diversity, inclusiveness, social acceptance, individuality and freedom of expression.
When Tracy Turnblad, our rotund young heroine and an aspiring participant in the annual Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant, breezily observes, “Using the judicial system to win a contest is un-American,” it speaks volumes in this modern-day political climate, whether or not it really resonated with the presumably conservative opening-night audience of City Springs Theatre in suburban Sandy Springs. The crowd was mostly quiet and stoic. (You can easily imagine the same line receiving thunderous applause from a more liberal-minded crowd at, say, the Alliance Theatre in midtown Atlanta.)
“Integration is the new frontier,” enthuses the forward-thinking Tracy (played here by a winsome Jennifer Massey), who eventually lands a spot on “The Corny Collins Show,” and soon embarks on a mission of “breaking the color barrier” by “putting kids on the show who look like the kids who watch the show.” The idea of allowing blacks and whites to dance together on TV, she figures, is nothing less than “marching to the beat of a whole new era.”
Don’t worry, though: “Hairspray” is no heavy-handed “message” musical, and largely a load of big-hearted fun. In the vibrant staging of artistic director Brandt Blocker (whose last outing was the stunning “Billy Elliot”), the City Springs show is sumptuously appointed — understandably enough, since the fabulous, imported sets and costumes are the original Broadway designs of David Rockwell and William Ivey Long, respectively.
The production numbers, accompanied by music director Chris Brent Davis’ polished 10-piece orchestra and featuring exuberant choreography by Cindy Mora Reiser, are vividly performed by a top-notch cast. Standouts in the ensemble are Kayce Grogan-Wallace (from last season’s “The Color Purple” at Actor’s Express) as a brassy record-store owner, and Steve Hudson (truly coming into his own after a career of mostly thankless bit parts) as Tracy’s unassuming father.
As usual, Tracy’s mother, Edna, is played by a man in drag — a cutesy gimmick that may be wearing thin. (I’ve similarly wondered before why the character of the famous “lost boy” Peter Pan is always portrayed by an adult actress.) In this case, out-of-town actor Greg London, who has been doing Edna for years, lacks a certain freshness and flamboyance. By the same token, it could be nice, just once, to see the show’s mother and daughter bad-girl bigots (Deborah Bowman and Alison Brannon Wilhoit) as more than simply over-the-top caricatures.
Musical theater will be musical theater, of course. Quibbles aside, City Springs’ “Hairspray” otherwise holds up with irresistible charm and infectious spirit to spare.
Through Sunday. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. $30-$62. Byers Theater (at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center), 1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs. 770-206-2022, cityspringstheatre.com.
Bottom line: A whole lot of fun; exuberantly executed.
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