Good Morning, Baltimore
[Editor’s Note: There are two pictures from the show accompanying Mr. Meachum’s review today.]
More than slightly weird: Sitting in the gloriously restored Hippodrome Theatre and hear Keala Settle lead the boys and girls of the “Hairspray” chorus belting out the opening “Good Morning, Baltimore.”
Of course, she wears her hair in a style that would render “bouffant” understatement; as the evening dances along – and how it dances along – layers and layers are added, in tribute to the highest fashion back in the days when disc-jockey Buddy Dean was king for all Baltimore teens. I was there.
When Westinghouse bought Channel 13, changing WAAM to WJZ, and bringing Charm City’s TV competition up from mumbled lethargy, Hearst tripled my Washington Post reporter’s salary to wage a promotional counter offensive.
Still in my twenties, I was Channel 11’s director of advertising, promotion and public relations, which put me on the hot seat. Before I could learn the location of WBAL’s men’s room, an all-out blitz covered everything in town.
A lion’s cage rolled up the aisle of a chamber of commerce luncheon, for example; Westinghouse’s way of calling attention to its purchase of the MGM movie package. In that pre-cable era, with only three stations around, the tactics threatened to drown the competition out!
We fought back with, on one occasion, a man in a gorilla suit promoting “King Kong;” a volunteer climbed into a water tank and stayed there, in the studio, as the audience could see frequently, wondering, we hoped, how long would he last. The show promoted was “Sea Hunt.”
Subtlety was wasted in a place that delighted in being labeled “a nickel beer place.” The beer was, of course, Natty Boh.
Wisely, neither of its competitors was brave enough to take on the after-school sensation hosted by a sometime radio DJ named Buddy Dean, who was himself remarkable in no fashion. Pleasant is the best description.
Anyone who remembers Dick Clark’s American Bandstand knows the drill. Invite a bunch of teens to dance to records, bringing in. on occasion, a star; the magnitude didn’t matter, not in Baltimore’s near-identical version.
Although the Hippodrome’s current production is set several years after I departed Charm City for other parts, those incredibly stroked, sculpted and plastered hair-dos were around, exactly as John Water’s invoked them. His movie became the prize-winning stage show that returned this week to its native climes.
How many prizes? Let’s begin with eight Tony Awards after being named by the New York Drama Critics Circle as Best Musical. Throw in a Grammy for the album in a raft of other laurels and don’t forget Choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s nomination for the trophy named for Fred Astaire.
“Hairspray” musical owes much of its success to constant movement, especially the dances, which come at a pace to make a machine gun seem slow. And there, dear readers, is the secret of why the entire audience opening night came to its feet with thunderous applause.
If you know, the storyline deals with integrating Buddy Dean’s dancing crew, I’m here to tell you even the civil rights wars come over as bright, upbeat and entertaining in the hands of the present company.
It makes for a sensational evening. I am reminded of “Lion King” only in the sense you will wonder where the next theatrical shtick is coming from; but as with “Lion King" the wait never lasts long.
Unfortunately for many readers, the show departs the city of its birth after New Year’s Day, which may pose a problem for some readers to get there. But try! It’s worth the effort and makes for a glorious gift for one and all.
A pair of “Hairspray” tickets will make any stocking on the mantel, wherever, come brilliantly alive.
If it’ll be your first trip to the Hippodrome, then let me prepare you for another treat: around the restored vaudeville theatre Baltimore’s West Side is coming alive. Big time!
And that development was particularly pleasant for me. The city I knew in the Buddy Dean days has been obscured by brand-new buildings and lost landmarks. The girls’ hair styles are not the same, and that’s good news. What’s happening at the end of Chesapeake Bay can only be characterized as exciting.
And that means more bang for your holiday visit to catch “Hairspray.” There’s no way to lose, except by dawdling and letting the marvelous show and company slip out of town, which happens before the traditional New Year’s football bowls really get under way. Don’t let that happen!