Your feelings about Artistry's version of Hairspray depend upon whether you're a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty kind of person.
Half-full? There are great performances from the first-tier actors, and the show's social message and terrific songs never go out of style.
Half-empty? Rough performances by other actors and a too-serious interpretation derail the fun.
It's Baltimore in 1962, and Tracy Turnblad just wants to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a daily showcase where bright-faced — and white — teens showcase the latest steps.
Tracy has a chance to audition, but her girth draws the ire of producer Velma von Tussle, who wants to use the show as a springboard for her less-than-talented daughter, Amber. Yet Tracy impresses with her steps, drawing the attention of Link Larkin, the show's youthful star.
Tracy makes the cut and immediately stirs the pot by trying to integrate the show. If the Von Tussles didn't completely hate her before, they do now. Tracy has her allies, including best friend Penny, black classmate Seaweed, and her parents, Wilbur and Edna. The path isn't easy, but Tracy knows that hard work and lots of '60s-era dance steps will carry the day.
The mixture of John Waters' original story and songs created by a team of Broadway veterans makes for irresistible material that avoids nostalgic traps by showcasing the era with warts intact.
Considering that the problems at the heart of Hairspray are still in play 53 years later, it's no surprise that director Michael Matthew Ferrell chose to emphasize them. This leads to some spectacular moments, such as a protest where the placards are packed with a half-century of slogans, from "I Am a Man" to "Black Lives Matter."
In other places, this attitude strips the show of its humor. Part of the brilliance of Hairspray is that it has its cake and eats it too. The social commentary is woven expertly into the humor. Changing that makes it less funny — without adding much to its serious side.
Throughout Hairspray's history, Edna has been played by a man — Divine in the original film, Harvey Fierstein on Broadway. Brandon Caviness wears the wigs this time around. His performance is nearly invisible in the beginning. Edna doesn't show signs of life until getting a makeover midway through the first act.
Yet Gracie Anderson is on from the opening moments as Tracy. Her charming performance and strong voice make for an engaging combination that moves the show from the first notes of "Good Morning Baltimore" to the close of "You Can't Stop the Beat."
The same can't be said of Nicholas Kaspari's Link Larkin. Link is supposed to be bland on the surface, but Kaspari is bland all the way through. Anderson's Tracy is such a bright, vibrant character, it's obvious she could do better.
While Wendy Short Hayes showcases nice pipes as Velma Von Tussle, her stiff acting robs the villain of most of her menace. Instead, we get a cardboard character that is easily knocked over by Tracy and her crew.
I'm going with half-full here. The quality material mixed with strong performances at the top and terrific dancing throughout keep Hairspray flying. In the end, the unstoppable beat wins out.