Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wheelock’s ‘Hairspray’ has its own twists and shouts - by Sheila Barth

Spoiler alert: Wheelock Family Theatre’s rollicking production of multi-ward winning, two-act “Hairspray, The Broadway Musical,” is more than a feel-good, happy-go-lucky rock ‘n’ roll fest. Like the original production, which ran almost seven years on Broadway, this version tackles a few heavier issues, but with a subtle approach.

The musical is a fabulous romp back to 1962, in slow-to-integrate Baltimore, Md., when rock ‘n’ roll, bouffant hairdos, TV dance parties, sock hops, and – unfortunately – racism and societal put-downs ruled. The musical also tackles conformity, bullying, and a rapidly-changing society, as rock ‘n’ roll skyrocketed off the charts, and its “race,” “colored,” or “n…..” music horrified conservative white parents.

Any teen who didn’t look, dress, and sound like each other, especially those who were heavyset, plain-looking, geeky, African-American, individualistic, gay, and God-knows-what else, were jeered at and shunned.  “Hairspray” touts the idea that being different can be a good thing.

Wheelock director Susan Kosoff ventures further into controversy by casting lovable star Jenna Lea Scott in lead role of chubby, teen-age, activist heroine, Tracy Turnblad. With her infectious, fresh-faced effervescence and giggly exuberance, Scott’s ideal here.

Like Scott, who was born in South Korea and adopted by Caucasian American parents, Tracy is also adopted from Asia by American odd couple, Wilbur and Edna Turnblad, of Baltimore. And they’re more odd than you think. Wilber is the affable owner of the Har-de-Har Hideway Hut joke shop, while his agoraphobic, hefty “wife,” Edna, is a cross-dressing male, who’s ashamed of being overweight. To earn money, stay-at-home Edna does other people’s ironing and laundry, but had hoped to someday become a fashion designer. Veteran actors Robert Saoud as Edna and Peter A. Carey as Wilbur are a delightful duo, especially in “You’re Timeless to Me,” the show’s biggest hit number.

Harmoniously accompanied by Music Director Matthew Stern and his merry musicmakers, “Hairspray’s” large, energetic cast embraces and welcomes theatergoers, with Laurel Conrad’s energetic choreography, dancing in the aisles and onstage, swinging, swaying, and singing “Good Morning, Baltimore,” then introduces us to “The Nicest Kids in Town,” all-white cast of Corny Collin’s TV dance show. As Collins, Mark Linehan is duly unctuous.

But Amber Von Tussle, spoiled, teen-aged daughter of show manager Velma Von Tussle, isn’t nice. She’s catty, cruel, egotistical, and a chip-off-the-old block, like her mother, Velma, who proudly touts her former beauty title, in “Miss Baltimore Crabs” . Popular star Aimee Doherty as Velma and Jane Bernhard as her carbon copy daughter are marvelously mean and downright despicable.

While Tracy is a big, frontline activist, gathering support and crossing race lines to integrate the show, her overly-protected pal, Penny Pingleton, creates her own chaos by falling for African-American super dancer, Seaweed J. Stubbs, (lanky John Allen), son of Baltimore’s black music radio superstar, Motormouth Maybelle (Gamalia Pharms). Tyla Colier as Seaweed’s younger sister, Little Inez, also shines.

But Jennifer Beth Glick as Penny, is a perpetual scene stealer, with her gum-cracking, slump-shouldered, squeaky obeisance to her bigoted mother, Prudy, and her metamorphosis as a glittery “checkerboard chick” .

North Shore favorite actress, Cheryl McMahon, is also outstanding in her roles as Prudy Pingleton, big size fashion entrepreneur Madame Pinky, and a mean-spirited gym teacher, who encourages her students to abuse their special education and African-American counterparts in a vicious game of scatter dodge ball.

The three moms, Turnblad, VonTussle, and Pingleton, and their daughters shine in their contrasting triptych number, “Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now”.

Although Michael Nortardonato as Link Larkin, Amber’s narcissistic boyfriend and TV dance party idol, sings and dances well, he does not ignite enough romantic sparks with his newfound love, Tracy. However, her dreamy rendition of “I Can Hear the Bells” is riotous.

Treat the family to Wheelock’s funny, rollicking “Hairspray”. From start to finish, they welcome you to those turbulent ‘60s, making sure you don’t miss the beat, dancing and singing in the aisles with them.

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