"Hairspray": 'Dos, dancing, doing right

By all rights, Tracy Turnblad and her doting mother, Edna, deserve keys to the city.

When they first turned up at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre in May 2002, as characters in the deliriously upbeat musical "Hairspray," our town was suffering from post-9/11, mid-recession stress.

"Hairspray" delivered solace, and how. And it keeps on giving, in the snazzy, vivacious national touring edition now in residence at the 5th Avenue.

If you missed the hullabaloo the first time around, "Hairspray" is based on the quirky-sincere John Waters retro-teen movie, about a plus-size, dancing-dervish high-schooler in early 1960s Baltimore. And after its successful Seattle tryout, it became a Broadway hit and won eight 2003 Tony Awards (including one for best new musical).

Much of the show's elemental charm comes from its source material, which has been respectfully and cleverly adapted by co-writers Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell. Like Waters' screenplay, their book for "Hairspray" balances teased-up silliness with spritzes of social consciousness.

The heroine you can't help root for is teenage Tracy (played on tour by the Hawaiian-bred dynamo Keala Settle). She may be plumper than her school's reigning mean-queen, Amber Von Tussle (Worth Williams), but Tracy can ace all the latest dance crazes — which, in Jerry Mitchell's inspired choreography, include The Pony, the Mashed Potatoes, the Dog and other blasts from the past. What's more, she's an avid supporter of racial equality in a city which (as many sly wisecracks inform us) is still largely segregated.

"Hairspray" relates how Tracy, with the help of sweet mom Edna (played in bulky drag by comedian John Pinette) manages to: 1) crash the size barrier, to star in a TV teen dance party show; 2) win the heart of teen super-hottie, Link Larkin (Austin Miller); and 3) lead a drive to integrate the airwaves, so every day becomes "Negro Day."

David Rockwell's inventive sets (love that Baltimore Formstone) still look great, as do William Ivey Long's color-splash costumes. What gives "Hairspray" its inexhaustible verve, however, is a delicious mingling of innocence and irony, and Marc Shaiman's terrific music, accessorized with his own and Scott Wittman's clever lyrics.

Shaiman (a noted film composer) here samples multiple flavors of early '60s pop with affection and dexterity. It's fun to count down the top-40 of styles, from the bass-heavy, wall-of-sound opening tune ("Good Morning Baltimore"), and the girl group fantasia "I Can Hear the Bells," to the irresistible R & B raves ("Go and Tell," "Welcome to the '60s") and sincere Civil Rights anthem ("I Know Where I've Been").

"Hairspray" has some redundant passages and split ends. But why quibble with a musical comedy of such cross-appeal and right-on joy? It's also the rare recent work that can make risqué and non-p.c. jokes (about race, size, et al.) without seeming crass or mean-spirited.

Sure, one misses Harvey Fierstein's quintessential turn as the show's original Edna, but Pinette is adorable and amusing in his own right. The cast in general is well up to snuff, including soap-opera alum Miller, Troy Britton Johnson as hep cat TV host Corny Collins, Susan Cella as the blond "heavy" Velma Von Tussle, powerful singer Charlotte Crossley as Motormouth Maybelle, and Alan Mingo Jr. and Chandra Lee Schwartz as an eager interracial couple with something to sing about.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Now playing "Hairspray." Tuesdays-Sundays through Sept. 26, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $22-$72 (206-292-ARTS or www.ticketmaster.com).