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Mimi Housewright. Photo: CenterStage.
Hairspray, the Musical
Book by Thomas Meehan & Mark O’Donnell
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman
Based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters
Directed by Frank Goodloe III
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents are copyright © 2018 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
John Waters has made an indelible mark on cinema since his first film, Pink Flamingos, which was a trip into a world that was perverse and part of the counter-culture of the 1960’s and early 70’s. I’d like to think by 1988 when he made Hairspray with Divine, Mr. Waters wised up a bit and softened a little too. While the movie wasn’t a huge hit for him when it was first released, it did much better as a video rental in the early 1990’s (remember those?). A decade or so later composer Marc Shaiman and songwriter Scott Whittman, who wrote pieces for the television show Smash, composed a Broadway version with a book by Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell that had its first performance in 2002 at the Neil Simon Theatre. Hairspray the Musical would go on to win 8 Tony Awards in 2013, including Best Musical. It ran for almost 7 years.
From her modest apartment in Baltimore, self-proclaimed “pleasantly plump” Tracy Turnblad (Miriam Housewright) watches The Corny Collins show on her 9” B&W TV set with her best friend Penny Pingleton (Erin Jump), dreaming of a chance to be on the show and meet her crush, Link Larkin (Landon Sholar). During the show, Corny (Andrew Newton) announces that the show will be holding auditions for a new Council Member. Seeing her chance, Tracy defies her mother Edna (Shane Whitehead) and tries out. Through her spunk and determination, she is hired, despite vehement disapproval from the show’s producer Velma Von Tussle (Bridget Thomas) and her daughter Amber (Shelby Brown), who is on the Council and wearing Link’s school ring.
Through her new found celebrity Tracy tries to make the show more reflective of the audience who watches it and upon learning that a pageant for the new Miss Hairspray will be aired on the show she sets a plan in motion to do just that. Despite a green light from Corny, Velma and Shelby plot against her.
As Tracy visits her African-American friends from school at Motormouth Maybelle’s record shop, she shares with them her wish for them to become daily regulars on the show, instead of once a month on “Negro Day”. Seaweed Stubbs (Tony Harris), her classmate, is tentative to go along with such a plan, but mother Maybelle (Andrea Diggs) and daughter Little Inez (Cadence Diggs) remind everyone that getting something that you want isn’t always easy, but worth it in the end. As Tracy and the Motormouth Kids are picketing the studio to let them in, all involved are arrested.
After a stint in jail and a breakout aided by her new beau Link, Tracy is further determined to make her mark and she and the others devise their plan to get back at Velma and Amber. It is a delightful ruse and the redemption is as sweet as a freshly picked berry.
Where to start, where to start? Let’s talk about the Motormouth Kids and the Dynamites. While there was high energy and excitement among the actors/dancers within the Kids, with an occasional piece of dialogue, I didn’t get that from The Dynamites too much. There was also a bit of a problem with key placement whenever they performed. Some of this could be opening night nerves, but I think some of it is from being young. I bet after a couple more tries they will be dy-no-mite.
Council Members, aka Nicest Kids, were pretty well synched up in their acting and dancing. Where it fell a little flat was in singing. Ensemble singing requires listening closely to others around you as well as the instrumental cues, when they are there. Many times throughout the night I could not hear the men in the chorus parts and when I did, it was maybe two of them I could hear. Don’t be afraid to sing out. Conversely, ladies, while I could hear each of you singing and your voices mostly aligned throughout the show, there were one or two of you that I could hear above the others. But I will say this for both ensembles, I admire how you were able to dance and sing at the same time. That talent takes a while to learn and train for, so great job.
Andrew Newton was cut from the cloth of every teeny-bopper TV show host throughout television history and not a bad singer, to boot. Cadence Diggs’ Little Inez added a nice splash of sassiness. I was so happy to see that the Hairspray tradition of Edna being played by a man was upheld with Shane Whitehead delivering one liners and dancing with Sam Mannino’s Wilbur like a champ, not to mention that their coupledom was charming.
Bridget Thomas as Velma seemed to fit her timbre quite well, although there were times that her deliveries were muddled, which seemed to be caused more by the microphone. In reading the bios I noticed that Shelby Brown once played Veronica in Heathers: The Musical, and her portrayal of Amber was definitely more Heather-like and well executed.
It is fun to watch Erin Jump as Penny portray a dorky teenager, which seems to become a big part of her wheelhouse. Emerging actor Tony Harris as Seaweed was exciting and energetic, with a lot of charisma and the ability to dance. Landon Sholar’s turn as Link Larkin was sweet and amorous as he channeled his inner Elvis. Andrea Diggs’ Maybelle absolutely took the audience to church with her performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been”. We were all ready to join that fight with her!!
Without a doubt, Ms. Housewright epitomized what the role of Tracy is: a perky, plus-sized, positive teenager. While she stumbled a little bit in “Good Morning, Baltimore” she was pretty much on-point the rest of the performance, save for a barely noticeable missed dancing cue or two. Her rendition of “I Can Hear the Bells” almost had me running around the corner to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to see her bridal registry. Keep that smile going, Mimi.
It looked like the orchestra had some different performers than what I have heard in previous productions, but save for some breathy wind instrumentation, the ensemble did quite well.
The production team certainly did their research. Choreographer Maggie Patten must have watched the movie or play several times and got her team working hard. Music Director Julie McKay did well keeping the rhythms tight and fleshing out the talent needed for a vocally and physically demanding performance. Stephanie Phillips must have had a field day in finding some of the props that were needed for the show which was delightfully lit by Nick Dent. I am guessing that Kate Smith also did some rummaging to find the 60’s costumes for the evening as well. A Big Hair shout-out to J. Michael’s Salon for their assistance with fabulous wigs. They were the bee’s knees!!! I am not sure what happened in the production as far as stage management, but I did notice a few cues missed and pieces of staging that should have been removed prior to the next scene for safety reasons.
It is hard to believe that it is now the 21st Century and core themes of Hairspray are still hot topics today: intolerance, acceptance, and equality. We need more Tracy Turnblads in the World. Perhaps you will be inspired by the Hairspray story and come away with a renewed sense of what is important in our society. As Director Frank Goodloe mentions in the closing of his Director’s Notes: “Together we can do so much more to overcome what has divided us….You’ve gotta dream big to be big.” Don’t Stop the Beat.
Hairspray, the Musical
July 19, 21, 23, 28, 30, August 2, & 4 @ 7:30 pm
July 22, 29, & August 5 @ 2 pm
For Tickets: jewishlouisville.org
Centerstage at JCC
360o Dutchman’s Lane
Louisville, KY 40205
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.