Feb. 23 2011 12:00 AM

Riverwalk’s ’Hairspray’ is a stylish sensation

Ari Helgesen, center, plays overnight TV star and improbable activist Tracy Turnblad in Riverwalk Theatre's "Hairspray," set in 1962 Baltimore. Lucas Pline/Courtesy of Riverwalk Theatre



From cult B-movie to Broadway hit, the aerosol-inspired “Hairspray” is setting the Riverwalk Theatre stage ablaze. Written and composed by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, this pro-justice musical openly mocks ignorance and racial phobias while stomping and sliding to the rhythm of early rock and roll.

O’Donnell and Meehan pay considerable homage to their influences, borrowing extensively from the post-“Grease”-era/pre-Beatles period of pop music. Fresh and inspired lyrics lean to the raunchy side with sinful double-entendres, but remain low-key enough to keep the show kid-friendly.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, “Hairspray” follows Tracy Turnblad (Ari Helgesen), a plump teenager with a bucket full of courage and conviction. When a job opens up on her favorite local teen dance program, “The Corny Collins Show,” the determined Tracy sets out to make the spot her own.

Aided by her mother, Edna (Tony Sump), and father, Wilbur (Keith Gracia Wing), Tracy faces down discrimination aimed at her size and her racially diverse peers.

Still in high school herself, Helgesen perfectly embodies all of the youthful optimism of her character, whether greeting the audience in “Good Morning, Baltimore” or swooning for love in “I Can Hear the Bells.” Helgesen dances as well as she sings, providing an impressive lead for the rest of the cast to follow.

Sump is a delight in drag. Playing the character instead of a queeny caricature, Sump is both loving and intimidating as a mother who understands how cruel the world is to anyone who looks “different.” Combined with his masterful
use of beats, Sump’s comic timing is almost unmatched by anyone else

Surprisingly believable as Edna’s middle-aged husband Wilbur, Wing brings charm and warmth to his character, qualities that help create a tender romantic chemistry with Sump.

Tessa Rose Michell plays Tracy’s defiant yet daft best friend Penny Pingleton. Michell’s gleeful grin and deadpan delivery make Penny’s non-sequiturs and inane redundancies amusing and often hilarious.

Penny’s heartthrob is Seaweed J. Stubbs, played by Prince Jerrell Spann. Spann’s smooth singing and relaxed demeanor perfectly balance Michell’s more hyped humor.

Benjamin English plays Link Larkin, the love of Tracy’s life and the suave crooner of “The Corny Collins Show.” Passing himself off as the local Elvis, English is a natural Link, complete with a cocky swagger, confident smile and voice to match.

As Velma Von Tussle, a vindictive stage mother and the producer of “The Corny Collins Show,” Amanda Whitehead is cold and deliciously unscrupulous. Like an animated Disney villain, Whitehead blends the appropriate mix of malice and mirth in the song “The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs” and throughout the show.

Tigiste Habtemariam gives strength and wisdom to her character Motormouth Maybelle, an R&B record store owner and host of “Negro Day” on the “Corny Collins Show." Habtemariam helps the show reach its highest heights with the show-stopping “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Lyrically conjuring up images of the Civil Rights struggle, Habtemariam, backed by a stage full of singers, lifts the entire show off the ground, inspiring tears and chills as the song soulfully marches to its stirring conclusion.

Lastly, Stephanie Banghart rocks two featured roles as the sadistic gym teacher and the saucy prison matron.

Other actors such as Michael Zamora, Joe Quick and Peppermint Creek founder Chad Badgero provide strong support in what are essentially chorus roles, ensuring a level of consistency throughout the entire cast.

Music director John Dale Smith keeps the music tight and moving while the entire cast performs Kayrn Perry’s impressive choreography flawlessly.

Hair and wigs designed by the Students of Douglas J Educational Center and Tony Sump are full of puff and personality.

Director Chad DeKatch clearly has attained a level of trust and commitment from his cast and crew not seen in every theater production.

As a result, “Hairspray” avoids traps such as poor pacing and flat performances, delivering instead a fully polished wave of energy.