Hairspray is among the more surprising hit shows to have edged into the American theatrical mainstream since either Godspell, inspired by a book of the New Testament, or Cats, suggested by T. S. Eliot's freaky book of children's poems. But the lavish Tony-winning 2002 Broadway musical looked nothing like the gritty John Waters' film from 1988 that spawned it. That's part of what makes its success story so satisfying: the weird little movie that grew into a Broadway hit, putting highly memorable songs in the ears of all who see it.
Because of this, Hairspray is a fitting choice to kick off the 40th anniversary season of Santa Rosa's Summer Repertory Theater program. Through the middle of August, the program's army of theatrical recruits will stage five different shows in repertory on two stages at the Santa Rosa Junior College. And because this is theater, and weird things happen in the world of theater, SRT's artistic director James Newman has stepped into the iconic cross-dressing role of Edna Turnblad in every performance of Hairspray.
Directed, as well, by Newman, Hairspray tells the story of a good-natured high school girl in 1962 Baltimore and her attempts to racially integrate her favorite TV dance show. Powered by a polished cast (Marlin Jamar Williams is a stand-out as Seaweed Stubbs) and backed by winning musical direction by Alex Wise, the infectiously positive show still has to overcome a few problematic microphone issues (the lyrics are often impossible to hear), but the commitment of the cast makes this fish-out-of-water tale a lyrical, lovable winner.
Unfortunately, in the case of A Flea in Her Ear, the second SRT show of the season, the commitment of the actors (which is nothing short of extraordinary) isn't quite enough to overcome some erratic direction and a number of unwise staging choices by director David Storck. In this overly raunchy adaptation of Georges Feydeau's 1907 sex farce, the action has been moved up to 1965 Paris, where a suspicious wife has reason to believe her husband has been cheating. Her concerns lead her to a seedy hotel called the Pussy-a-Go-Go—along with nearly everyone else in her household, who for one reason or another end up rampaging in and out of doors at breathtaking speed.
As the befuddled would-be womanizer Victor, Jeremy Sonkin is first-rate, as are Nemuna Cesay as Victor's wife, Yvonne, and Zach Guzik as the couple's outlandishly amoral doctor. The set by Greg Mitchell is as much a cast member as the cast, and takes a serious beating from all those slamming doors and spinning rooms.
Summer Repertory Theater runs through Aug. 13. For full schedule, visit www.summerrep.com.