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'Hairspray' keeps a civics lesson fresh

Starring in "Hairspray," from left, Amy Burgmaier, Nik

Starring in "Hairspray," from left, Amy Burgmaier, Nik Alexzander, Malorie Bryant, Evan Michael Smith, Danielle Arci, Ben Hoffman, Sara Dobrinich, Jared Mancuso and Kara DeYoe, at the Engeman Theater at Northport through Aug. 28, 2011. Credit: Photo by AnnMarie Snyder

Social studies class was never such fun.

It was summer camp day at the Engeman Theater, and the critic may have been the only adult in the audience who was not a chaperone. Enthusiastic tweens and teens got a rock-and-soul lesson in ancient history. After all, "Hairspray," the Tony-winning 2002 musical opening Engeman's fifth season, is set in 1962 Baltimore.

Although the names have been changed, the back story is based on a sad-but-true piece of cultural history. "The Buddy Deane Show" was the "American Bandstand" of Baltimore. The TV sock hop considered integrating, but sponsors canceled the show rather than risk the sight of blacks and whites dancing together.

Like Deane, "Hairspray's" Corny Collins, slickly played by Nick Dalton, is pro-integration.

Plus-sized civil rights activist Tracy Turnblad (Danielle Arci) dreams of joining the show. But Corny's regulars -- especially stuck-up Amber (Ashley Moniz) -- hurl fat-girl jokes. Undaunted, Tracy throws herself at Amber's Elvis-wannabe boyfriend (Alex Michael Stoll), challenges her in the Miss Hairspray contest and accepts dance pointers from a black friend, Seaweed (Eric LeJuan Summers), and his mom, Motormouth Maybelle (Terita Redd, reprising her Broadway role).

Men who've played Edna Turnblad -- from Divine to Harvey Fierstein to John Travolta -- steal the show. But, as directed by Paul Stancato, William Thomas Evans cedes the spotlight to Arci. Her Tracy, feverishly giddy on "You Can't Stop the Beat," doesn't disappoint. Neither does Redd, whose "I Know Where I've Been" rises to the level of civil rights anthem.

Bruce Rebold as Tracy's dad teams with Evans in a sweet soft-shoe, "You're Timeless to Me." Gina Milo as Seaweed's white girlfriend and Felicia Finley as Amber's racist mom endure their mostly one-dimensional roles.

Sets and costumes by Michael Bottari, and Ronald Case embroider Antoinette DiPietropolo's choreography to Robert Rokicki's orchestration. Mark Adam Rampmeyer's hair designs are suitably outrageous.

Maybe we should nominate "Hairspray" originator John Waters for civics teacher of the decade.



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