'Hairspray' at the Surflight: Plenty of talent, personality, elan

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Toni Ann Simione (left) is Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray” at the Surflight Theatre.

Sometimes, you have to imagine what might have been. How would the play have gone had the sets, lights, and sound actually worked ­— had Cyrano’s nose not fallen off, the castle not collapsed, or Ariel, supposed to fly, not ended up dangling helplessly from the rafters?

On Tuesday night, the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, N.J., on Long Beach Island, wafted Hairspray into the air. It was quite the opening night, a hometown affair, with a game audience ready to laugh and tap toes. Sponsored, hilariously, by Lavish Salon of Beach Haven, this Hairspray had plenty of talent, personality, and elan.

And one nightmare sound system. From the outset, mics died or screamed, crucial cues were missed, and singers and prerecorded music (in a show that cries out for a live band) did not mix. The second half was better, save for an irritating sizzle of static.

Hey, but that’s theater. Singing was strong, even when ragged or off-key (again, the sound system did not help). Dancing was simple but effective, the ensemble likable and in good form. Paula Hammons Sloan ensures that the dancers continue to act their roles as they dance, the mark of good choreography.

Toni Ann Simione excels as Tracy Turnblad, a plucky, plus-size high schooler bent on integrating the local rock-and-roll TV show in 1962 Baltimore: “I just think it’s stupid that we can’t all dance together.” Intrepid, assured, Simione connects, and she sure can dance. She makes her quest believable.

Hairspray requires an excellent Edna Turnblad, the cross-dressing role owned by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway and John Travolta in the movies. Edna must be so good you’d go just to see her. And Surflight has one: Michael McAssey, “a simple housewife of indeterminate girth,” a dash of Bert Lahr, a blinding swoop of orange hair, and a double-take that could wreck a train. Edna, alas, was probably the biggest victim of sound Tuesday night: Her transformation-entrance from Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway was totally muffed. Awful, but the audience, forgiving many sins, roared. Rick Grossman as Mr. Turnblad is also great, but, alack, their soft-shoe duet, “You’re Timeless to Me,” went in and out, garbling some of the show’s funniest lines.

Other standouts include Emily Cobb as Penny Pingleton, gawky-funny as Tracy’s sidekick; Dwan Hayes as Motormouth Maybelle, who blew down the walls with “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and the showstopper “I Know Where I’ve Been”; Surflight favorite Andrew Foote, perfect as TV host Corny Collins; Tanner Callicutt, handsome and nimble as Tracy’s love object, Link; and little Olivia Linton as Inez (how you acquire that much self-possession at age 10 I’ll never know). My favorites were the “girl group” the Dynamites — Nina Gabriela Gross, Miriam Navarette, and Sydni Session. In the single most magical moment, they are the singing chorus during “Welcome to the Sixties,” introducing the theme of integration.

That theme makes you forget the stereotypes in this once-cutting-edge musical. The closing song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” seems to concern music and dancing, but the point is really social change: It always happens elsewhere, and, fight it or go with it, you can’t stop it. Surflight’s Hairspray was unstoppable, too, a puff of sparkly stuff on a summer night.

Hairspray. Through Aug. 27 at the Surflight Theatre, 201 Engleside Avenue, Beach Haven, N.J. Tickets: $29-$39. Information: 609-492-9477, surflight.org.