Rockwell Shines in Hairspray

Tracy Turnbald is asleep in her bed. But hers is no ordinary bed. This bed is seen from a bird’s eye view of Tracy’s room, with 45-rpms and other, familiar ’60s teenage paraphernalia scattered about.

Tracy unzips the bed covers, jumps onto the stage and thus begins the saga of how one teenage loser becomes queen of the hop, and conquers racial prejudice too.

The music is infectious, the dancing is dynamite, and the acting is over-the-top. What with Harvey Fierstein playing Edna Turnbald, Tracy’s loving but nutty mom, it could not be otherwise.

The set design is as important to Hairspray, now playing to rave reviews at New York’s Neil Simon Theatre, as the acting, the music, the costumes, and the lighting. The sets provide a fun-loving backbone to a fun-loving play, and they’re the work of an architect. But this is no uptight, bow-tied, and suspender-wearing architect. This is easy-going, long-haired, plaid-shirt-wearing David Rockwell who also designed the fantabulous stage set for The Rocky Horror Show.

In the world of interior designers and architects Rockwell is known for his lively settings for some of New York’s best restaurants, including Nobu and Monkey Bar; his hotels like the critically acclaimed Chambers in Midtown; and his exotic casino, the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. In these places there are always chairs, lamps, tables, rugs, and other furnishings that were designed especially for them by Rockwell’s dynamic team. Their designs rely on the skills of craftspeople to execute, just as crafts are intensely important to theatrical set design.

For Hairspray Rockwell used familiar, but over-scaled icons of 1962 Baltimore. These include the working-class row houses with their white marble stoops; the fake brick siding blown up to colossal proportions; microphones arrayed in a halo-like configuration around the local TV studio; the kinetic interior of Motormouth Maybelle’s Record Shop; and the rough-edged metal cage of the jailhouse. It all works to create an image that satisfies the moment, and an afterimage that conjures up unexpected smiles now and then.

As we were leaving the packed theater last Friday night, grinning like everyone else in the crowd and recalling all the things we loved about the play, fans lined up at the stage door to catch a glimpse of the exiting players. Me, I was looking for David Rockwell. But he wasn’t there that night; maybe I’ll just tell him how successfully his designs transported us to a more innocent Baltimore.

Categories: Cities