Moving civil rights struggles, puffy hairdos and soulful songs make Berkeley Playhouse’s production of the hit Tony Award-winning musical “Hairspray!” an extraordinary treat. Onstage at the Julia Morgan Theater through May, the vibrant show is the first directed by the troupe’s new artistic director Daren A.C. Carollo, who was named to the post last spring.
Carollo’s emphasis on Baltimore’s racial divide in 1962 adds a lovely depth to the show, particularly in Act 2’s barn-raising gospel anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been,” sung by Motormouth Maybelle, the wise black matriarch (delightfully, and unusually, played in drag by Berwick Haynes).
Behind Maybelle, a big, 1960s-style TV screen powerfully flashes real video footage from the era, with Martin Luther King and images of “coloreds only” signs.
Designer Robert Broadfoot’s perfect mod proscenium (in pink, orange, blue and green and reminiscent of “Laugh In”) and his Ultra Clutch hairspray set, for the Miss Hairspray contest, add the aura of the era’s fun to the proceedings.
The Miss Hairspray competition, of course, is the culmination of the irresistible 2002 show (by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on a movie by John Waters) about Tracy Turnblad, a plus-sized teen who raises eyebrows and consciousness when she tries to integrate a TV dance show.
People she loves help her: Her sweet quirky parents Edna and Wilbur; her crush, the hunky TV dancer, Link; her friend Penny; and Seaweed and Li’l Inez, the Negro kids she meets in detention.
Her enemies are Velma Von Tussle, producer of the Corny Collins dance show who wants to keep it white, and Velma’s equally distasteful daughter, Amber.
Music director Michael Patrick and choreographer Alyssa Bond lead a uniformly great cast: Monica Turner as Tracy, Glen Riggs, in drag as Edna, Joel Roster as Wilbur, Andrew Humann as Link, Hannah Foster as Penny, Branden Thomas as Seaweed, Khalia Davis as Li’l Inez, Taylor Bartolucci as Velma and Chelsea Holifield as Amber.
A lively chorus captures the energy of the changing times — with a big, bold spritz.
Presented by Berkeley Playhouse
Where: Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Fridays, 1 and 6 p.m. Saturdays, noon and 5 p.m. Sundays; closes May 17
Tickets: $25 to $60
Contact: (510) 845-8542, ext.351, www.berkeleyplayhouse.org