Musical-theater therapy is what I call it.

Once that curtain goes up, well, our worries disappear behind fun, song and fantasy.

And we all know we need as much escape as we can get these days.

But a funny thing happened to me at the theater last weekend.

I walked out of Hairspray carrying an emotional heft, one that I had never experienced with the show before. And I don't think I was the only one feeling that way.

Sure the campy, exhilarating '60s musical, now playing at the Walnut Street Theater, was entertaining, and the talented, mostly Philadelphia-based ensemble had no problem transporting us to that familiar fun place.

Yet at the same time, the musical's message of racial inclusion and tolerance, featuring Tracy Turnblad (Amy Toporek), the chubby white girl who seeks to integrate an all-white dance show circa 1962, has in the past had a tendency to come off as frozen in time and as outdated as racist station manager Velma Von Tussle - and her beehive.

New meaning

But not this time. Not anymore.

Suddenly,

Hairspray

resonates with new power and meaning.

Chalk another one up to the Obama effect.

I got a lump in my throat during Joilet F. Harris' (Motormouth Maybelle) showstopper, "I Know Where I've Been," a solo in which she urges the teen protesters to keep fighting.

There's a dream in the future/There's a struggle we have yet to win/And there's pride in my heart/Because I know where I'm going/And I know where I've been.

A reminder from Maybelle of where we'd been as a nation. And that having just elected our first black president, we stand smack dab in a moment in history so crystallizing that the light social commentary of

Hairspray

let's us see just how far we've come.

Giving a quirky, nostalgic musical new breath and depth.

Adding to the moment, somehow it's fitting that

Hairspray's

preview night fell on Nov. 4 - Election Day.

As excited as cast members were to perform, they were understandably preoccupied. After all, their song and dance may have captured a fictional moment in history, but this

was

history.

Absorbing the moment

When the preview performance was over and the actors realized Obama had won, "The whole room just went up," Harris remembers. "It was like being in church. . .. We just cried, boo-hooed and sang."

And broke into a spontaneous rendition of one of the show's catchiest tunes, "Welcome to the 60's" - only they changed the lyrics to Obama, welcome to the White House. (See the clip at

)

"Everything took on a new meaning at that moment," Harris says.

For us theatergoers, too.

Certain lines of dialogue seem to ring more truthfully. When host Corny Collins (Ben Dribble) asks Tracy her aspirations during her audition for the

Corny Collins Show

, on which African Americans are only allowed to dance one day a month on "Negro Day," the barrier-breaking Tracy gushes: "I'd be the first woman president."

Not so implausible, given recent historic events.

"...and I'd make every day Negro Day!"

For Germantown native Harris, 50, the cast's grand dame, the show has prompted plenty of teachable moments - civil rights history lessons that she knows the younger actors just wouldn't have taken as seriously.

"This show," she says, "is bringing a new sense of awareness. It's at the right place and the right time."

And validates a certain hope that "others" are welcome to join the party.

"I'm hoping there are more Tracys in the world - people who bring people together," Toporek says. "I'm glad I can be that person in the role."

That night, I came out of the theater thinking . . . wow. We really are a part of this continuum - an American bandstand of promise on which all kinds of people get to dance.

Which was how

Hairspray

perfomed its finale, a trimphant chorus of "You Can't Stop the Beat."

I sure hope not.

"Hairspray" runs through Jan. 4. Information: www.walnutstreettheatre.org or 215-574-3550.

Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com