Word on the street is: Big is in.
Big as in shape and size, yes, but also attitude. It’s about leaving an impression. Making sure people remember you. Making sure everyone in the room feels larger than life.
The Kavinoky Theatre got the memo. Their 40th anniversary season blasts off with an explosive production of the divinely enjoyable “Hairspray,” one of the best and biggest musical comedies ever written. It’s just such a perfect show, from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s infectious score of 1960s pop bops, to Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s hilarious book based on John Waters’s subversive 1988 non-musical film.
On paper, it’s got it all. Here, at the typically “serious” Kavinoky, you’re left suspended in a bloom of joy, a gleaming smile dancing its way back to the car. It hits a few bumps in the road on the way – a clumsily staged “Good Morning, Baltimore” at the top of the show, and sound design that somehow squeezes Allan Paglia’s fantastic nine-piece offstage band into what sounds like a tin can – but overall it’s a joyride.
Director-choreographer Carlos R.A. Jones leads a spirited production that merges what we already know and love about the show with something entirely original. It borrows plenty of well-greased shtick from the original Tony-winning staging – as most productions of most shows do.
But there’s also something new here. This is a scaled-back, almost black-box treatment of the candy-coated versions we’ve seen before. Paul Bostaph’s minimal set abstracts the midcentury geometry from 1962 Baltimore decor and leaves us focused on the textures and patterns rather than the literal look.
Jones’s direction pays heavy homage to the brilliance of Waters’s subversive humor, too. Much more so than either the 2007 film or 2016 live television broadcast ever got right. This hits the dirty end of his humor with a glittery rusty nail. His choreography is at times jaw-dropping, brought to full, vivacious life by this youthful cast. Extraordinary dancing here.
The biggest deal about this production, however, is the onslaught of supremely deft performances that push this show into overdrive. There’s so much talent on this stage – and many impressive debuts – it’s hard to know where to look. There are too many to mention by name here, but just know that there’s not a weak one in the bunch. This is the strongest ensemble I’ve seen in quite some time.
Maeghan McDonald is absolutely pitch-perfect as Tracy Turnblad, the confident (and portly) teen who desperately wants to dance on the Corny Collins Show and bring integration to national airwaves in the process. McDonald nails every note of Tracy’s drive and focus, and never misses a beat. She’s stunning.
Marc Sacco and Kevin Kennedy are at the top of their character game here, as is Anne DeFazio in a string of bit parts that she knocks out of the ballpark.
Cassidy Kreuzer and Natalie Slipko are killer as the scheming segregationist Von Tussle girls. Arin Lee Dandes drops unexpected humor bombs as Tracy’s vanilla BFF Penny Pingleton. And as Seaweed, Penny’s adorable new boyfriend from “the other side of town,” Brian Brown is both darling and excitable – and boy, can he dance.
The role of Tracy’s mother, Edna, is traditionally played by usually gruff men in drag, a carryover from Waters’s original film. Billy Lovern is naturally sweeter but no less cunning as Edna, and a wonderful stage partner to John Fredo (“Johnny Fredo!” his loyal fans rejoice). Fredo infuses Wilbur Turnblad with vaudevillian charm like only he can. Their second-act “You’re Timeless to Me” is cake with a cherry on top.
As Motormouth Maybelle, Lorenzo Shawn Parnell owns the biggest applause of the evening for his stirring rendition of the 11-o’clock number “I Know Where I’ve Been.” This here is major-league work, just one of many big performances that leaves a lasting, necessary mark.
3.5 stars (out of four)
Through Oct. 6 at Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave., Buffalo. Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $45-40. (box office, 716.829.7668, kavinokytheatre.com).