(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)
The farcical yet message-loaded “Hairspray” is the type of musical that in a bad production falls flat, but in a good production leaves the audience energized and dancing in the aisles. Fortunately the must see production at Porthouse Theatre is dynamic, creative, full of joy!
The stage musical based on the 1988 John Walters movie with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan is a cry for integration in 1960s segregated Baltimore.
The story focuses on “zaftig” Tracey Turnblad, who has three desires in life: dance on the “Corny Collin’s Show” (think Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”), have “every day, Negro day,” and meet Link Larkin, the show’s “stud” male.
Tracey keeps getting sent to detention at her school because of her well-sprayed huge hair (the Jackie O signature style of the era) . The detention room is populated by African Americans who expose the liberal-minded Tracy to “black” dancing. After Tracy gets selected to be on the show, against the wishes of Velma von Tussle, the show’s prejudiced producer, she launches a campaign to integrate the show.
Of course, all hell breaks loose including picketing, a riot, a jail lockup, a jail breakout, white kids singing and dancing in ‘Balmur’s all black North side, the coming out of Tracy’s agoraphobic, plus-sized mother, love affairs between Link and Tracy as well as that of Penny, Tracy’s white best friend and Seaweed, the son of black dj and vocalist, Motormouth Maybelle.
The 2002 Broadway production won eight Tony Awards, ran over 2500 performances, has had numerous foreign and community theatre productions, and was made into a film in 2007.
Director Terri Kent has molded a group of professional and college students into a mighty musical theatre force. The audience was rockin’ and screamin’ from the first song, “Good Morning Baltimore,” through the closing infectious “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” The reprise of that song found the sold out performance on their feet, dancing, singing, clapping and screaming for more.
Katey Sheehan, she of chunky cheeks, darlin’ dimples, big voice, and dancing feet, was Tracy-terrific. She has an infectious stage presence that well fit the role. Talia Cosentino, who has “a Broadway future star” written all over her, was “Gidget”-cute as Tracy’s best friend Penny. Chuck Richie (in drag) was endearing as Tracy’s mother and Rohn Thomas was charming as Tracy’s dad.
Sandra Emerick was evil incarnate as the prejudiced, self-centered Velma von Tussle, and Lindsay Simon was mini-evil incarnate as Velma’s daughter, Amber.
On opening night, Colleen Longshaw (Motormouth Maybelle) almost achieved the impossible deed of stopping the show for a standing ovation after her wailing, infectious rendition of the gospel-rock “I Know Where I’ve Been.” The ovation was cut short by too quick a light fade and musical interlude. (I understand that this was adjusted by the second night and Longshaw was properly rewarded!)
Jimmy Ferko was appropriately affected as Link Larkin, but got a little too automatic at times. Jared Dixon’s Seaweed was a dynamo of dancing and singing perfection. Bria Neal was delightful as the full spirited dynamo, Little Inez. Ian Benjamin was good, but could have been a little more over-the-top as Corny Collins. Dance captain Kirk Lydell “killed” with his dancing skills! Shamara Costa, Alex Echols, and Eveena Sawyer were song and style-right as a Supremes-like trio.
Song highlights were: “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” “Velma’s Revenge,” ”Welcome to the ‘60s,” and “Big, Blonde & Beautiful.”
In “I Can Hear the Bells,” the singing was fine, but I couldn’t hear the bell sounds, as instead of bells, lame special effect lights were used.
“Run and Tell That” displayed choreographer, John Crawford’s, creativity in using a small space with great effect.
Audience favorites were “You’re Timeless to Me,” which got a reprise, and “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
Musical Director Jonathan Swoboda, and his band, Alex Berko, Jennifer Korecki, Dave Bans, Jean Wroblewski, Craig Wholschlager, Jim Lang, Ryan McDermott, Jeremey Poparad, Don Day and Bill Sallak rocked the sounds, but wisely underscored rather than drowned out the singers. That is a difficult task as the music lends itself to be blasted.
The costumes were generally fine but the women’s wigs needed better selection and attention.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Director Terri Kent pulled out all the stops, added tons of shticks and gimmicks, has a rocking band, creative and well performed choreography, and a focused cast, which resulted in a wonderful, “this you must see” theatrical experience.
“Hairspray” runs July 30-August 16, 2015 at Porthouse Theatre. Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time. For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to www.porthousetheatre.com.