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Playing To Win

What could be better tonic in this summer of our national discontent than TriArts’ revival of “Hairspray,” that bouncy, happy musical extolling all-American values: resilience, determination, fair play and victory for the underdog? When chunky Tracy Turnblad bounds about the stage exuding optimism, she’s like a cheerleader for the America we miss. Like a chubby tank with something resembling a lacquered animal on her head, Turnblad lives in a mini world that centers on the Corny Collins TV Show, which allows teenagers to dance on camera and maybe even win the Ultra-Clutch Hairspray Company’s annual Miss Teenage Hairspray Contest. Tracy, regularly forced into detention hall by an unsympathetic principal, rushes home daily to watch the show and dream of becoming a regular. But if the play resembles “Grease” and “Fame,” it is wittier, funnier, better natured; and — without pretension — it is more socially and morally aware. It is also unashamedly sentimental, like a greeting card that makes you remember good times. The play, with book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, is a paean to being different, whether fat — like Tracy and her bloated mother, Edna — or black, like Motormouth Maybelle, her son Seaweed and his friends in segregated Baltimore. So Tracy’s goal isn’t only to get on the Collins show and beat her Barbie-doll schoolmate, the plasticized Amber, for the Miss Hairspray crown, but to integrate the Collins show beyond its one Negro Day each year. To do both, she will have to best the show’s producer, Amber’s ruthless, ambitious, bigoted stage mother, Velma. Given Amber’s comic book meanness and Velma’s spiritual void, we know from the beginning Tracy will succeed. But we don’t know that Tracy’s efforts will change Edna, who, embarrassed by her weight, never leaves their apartment; Link, the singing and dancing heartthrob on the Collins show who mesmerizes Tracy; or Motormouth and the black kids who loiter in her music store. Surprisingly, the show spoofs itself with a witty script and sophisticated jokes: As whites invade Motormouth’s music store, a black kid declares, “If we get any more, it’ll be a suburb.” And when Tracy wonders what comes after detention hall, another inmate declares, “Congress.” The music is based on 1960s rock and doo-wop. Songs spring directly from the story and are mostly very good, even memorable. (You’ll likely sing snippets of “Good Morning, Baltimore” for days.) TriArts has cast “Hairspray” from strength. Katie Sarno’s Tracy is an endearing dynamo with a big voice and great timing. Al Bundonis, in the drag role of Edna — memorably played on Broadway by gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein and in the movie by John Travolta — builds from perhaps too much restraint in the first act to more in-your-face, over-the-top acting in the second. And he’s dynamite in the finale. As Link, handsome Michael Schultz boasts a mile-wide smile and a good Elvis imitation. Amy Leblanc’s Velma is the quintessential stage mother remembering her own brush with fame as “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” Kara Dombroski’s Amber is all shrill laughter and maliciousness, while Kaitlyn Frank’s Penny Pingleton blossoms from malapropisms and thick glasses into a femme fatale in a tight red dress. Jo’Lisa Jones gives Motormouth (who frequently talks in rhymed couplets) dignity and a big voice. Stephen Wormley’s Seaweed is a long, tall stalk of energy, the best dancer on the stage. And TriArts’ favorite, Michael Britt, is Wilbur Turnblad, the perfect short and charming foil for Bundonis’s big Edna; their duet is a show-stopper. Sarah Combs’s direction is a puzzle: While she mostly moves her large cast well, there are times when the show goes flaccid. The same is true for Cindi Parise’s choreography, usually energetic and tight, occasionally loosey-goosey. Erik Diaz has designed a set that recalls “Ed Sullivan Show” and “American Bandstand” backgrounds. Costumes by Lindsay R. Forde are right-on nostalgic. And the superb Lee Harris gives the musical direction verve and an authentic sound. “Hairspray” runs at TriArts’ Sharon Playhouse through Aug. 21. Call 860 364-7469 or go to www.triarts.net for tickets.

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