Hairspray – Easier Said than Hon

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Hairspray, Photo Credit: Mort Shuman

A REVIEW BY ACHILLES FEELS

This is my second time seeing a musical from Purple Light Theatre and it’s funny, because the last time we decided to review them, I happened across the listing in some random place and thought: “Oh wow, a new company to go see.”  They still feel relatively fresh out of the gate – don’t get me wrong, though, just because they’re young doesn’t mean they can’t strut their stuff.  In my previous review of their Into The Woods, I mentioned how I hoped that next time this group would pick a show better suited for a company so green.  And they have.  They’re currently presenting Hairspray, conceived by none other than Baltimore’s own Suitor of Sleaze, Mr. John Waters.  It’s strangely timely.  Waters’ screenplay was all about racial inequality and struggling for self-worth in the stark face of the adversity and exclusivity of the early 1960s.  I could not think of a better time to present a piece on these themes and to make art for healing sake in this city.  Though I doubt it was purposeful, the timing is spot on.

My Woods review did pointed out a few mistakes (Sondheim as your first musical ever? Naw.) It seems, however, that this company has taken those words in stride and have here developed a fresh and minimal approach to the iconic Baltimore show. Hairspray is about Tracy Turnblad (Amy E. Haynes) and her obsession with two men (ohh, grrl!), Corny Collins (Jeremy Goldman), host of a local sock-hop dance-and-sing television show, and cutie-pie schoolmate Link Larkin (David Woodward). Tracy’s dancing feet just just can’t wait to join the man candy…uh…I mean, shindig…and star on the program herself.  Here’s the catch:  Tracy is a big girl, just like her mama Edna (Roger Schulman, and yes; you read that name correctly).  That’s a problem on The Corny Collins show, which is crammed full skinny WASP white youngins sporting greased back hair, poodle skirts, and hairdos higher than heaven (and also a heaping helping of racism: it’s the early 60’s in a highly segregated town, which means local black teens only get a chance on the show one day a month and are NEVER seen dancing with their white counterparts).  Ms. Turnblad tries to knock some “sense” into her daughter, but brave Tracy’s not hearing any of that bullshit. She takes the affirming advice from her goofy and encouraging dad, Wilbur (Greg Guyton) and shakes her tail-feather all over the TV studio. Her forward thinking anti-segregation spirit is exactly what producer Velma Von Tussle (Michele Guyton) is trying to avoid, but Corny jumps on the Tracy Turnblad tugboat and she scores herself a spot!  Fast forward through a bit of teen angst and and we get Tracy fighting to make every day “Colored Day.”  Tracy and her adorably geeky friend Penny Pingleton (Katie Tyler) are totally down-with-brown and are not having anymore of that segregation crap. All the black kids and open-minded white kids follow Tracy’s lead and stage a protest to allow her friends of color, including radio personality Motormouth Maybelle (Tracy McCracken) and her son, Seaweed (Patrick Campbell) to integrate the show.  Tracy’s one of those people who gets really matters in the world.  She sees the sea of people as just that: people.  Her  efforts are, unfortunately, squashed and she ultimately lands the whole neighborhood in the clink.  Don’t fret, though:  you can’t keep a good girl down.  The whole show ends up in the bag with (almost) everybody happy. It’s sweet, side-splittingly funny, and full of important undertones that should be acknowledged along with the laughs.

First of all, forgive me:  I believe this is the largest cast I’ve ever reviewed, at a whopping 29 individual characters.  So, you’ll have to pardon me if I don’t name each and every soul in this production, we’d be here for a month.  Director Tommy Malek did a great job of handling actors in double cast roles.  The casting in general was impressive for small theater – visually and age appropriate.  I didn’t feel that one person out of place in all 29 characters.  Since this is a musical, let’s talk ears.  The show’s number one and number two were Haynes’ Tracy Turnblad and David Woodward’s Link Larkin . Haynes has a huge show to sing (pardon the pun) and she more than holds her own from line 1 to line 10,000.  She was absolutely fantastic, all heart and soul, range and talent.  Woodward rocks his vocals, kills his footwerq and kicks ass – I hear he was in the running and potentially even won The Voice contest for Baltimore (correct me, please, in the comments if I’m cyber-stalking incorrectly)?   Jeremy Goldman’s Corny Collins sings and smiles his cute little butt off – I’d let him read me the phone book any day!  Schulman gets uberprops for keeping that shit totally together in backwards and in heels.  He’s not a drag queen, he’s a man in a dress, and it’s perfect, flubbed lines, smeared lipstick, crooked tits and all.  Greg Guyton plays Wilbur Turnblad as incredibly loving and wins the day.  He’s responsible for one of the sweetest onstage moments I’ve ever seen in Act II’s marital duet “You’re Timeless to Me”.  Katie Tyler gets the “staying in character” award and makes Penny’s huge onstage transformation seem totally natural.  And Patrick Campbell, playing Penny’s love interest, Seaweed, (Patrick Campbell) also gets the golden star.  He takes names, friends.  Names.  Tyler and Campbell handle their dynamic character arcs with ease and grace.

I was disappointed, however, by McCracken.  Though it sounded like there was a brassy, ballzy voice hidden somewhere in Motormouth Maybelle, I did not get it on opening night.  Her bio states she’s been off the stage 23 years, perhaps she needed a little bit of a break between dress rehearsal and opening?  Michele Guyton’s Velma Von Tussle also sounded a bit lost and occasionally uneven, coming off at times tentative and then waaayy too much.  I wish that Malek had done a bit more with the Trio of The Dynamites (Renata Hammond, Taylor Dodson, and Sydney Pope) because all of them can really sing, but I wanted to see them play off each other and really nail those details to blend.  It sounded like three amazing soloists, but I was looking for a trio of women singing those sultry tunes.  Overall, though, the company was terrific.  I’m only sorry I can’t name every single person who sang and danced their asses off but I really did enjoy the music and 90% of the singing.

Sound design by William K. D’Eugenio had unfortunate problems.  Levels were off, leading to lyrics getting lost in blaring music or vice-versa.  Baltimore musical theater (and rock opera, ahem…) folks, I beg you to listen to me:  don’t fuck up glorious singing with bad mic technique, speaker placement, or level balancing!  Direction and Choreography by Tommy Malek (with Associate directors Caitlin Grant and Parker Bailey Steven) was excellently planned and motivated, though I was occasionally afraid that most of the cast was going to land in my lap, they performed so far downstage.  Why  stage a musical in ¾ thrust and then have the whole cast perform to the downstage edge?   Music Direction by duo Nathan C. Scavilla and Benjamin Nabinger pushed the cast to use those instruments but I fear that some weren’t ready to be shoved out of the nest so abruptly.  Lighting Design (Josh Taylor) was disappointing.  It sounds harsh, but it frustrates me to know that there is such amazing lighting equipment up in the grid at BBOX and see it being used incorrectly.  Please, shine it properly and use it to full potential  – I saw shadow on faces, no modeling, glare, actors walking in and out of light, gel-scrollers rolling back and forth for a lameish disco dance time and many more missed opportunities.  Standing out on the design team, however, were costumers Clare Kneebone, Benjamin Nabinger and Tommy Malek.  This group rocked those ensembles like it was their life’s mission.  I love, love, loved it!  It was especially essential because of the lack of much set (sorry, I’m not going to call two light up platforms and a sign a set) so the costumes became the visual story of the show and they. were. owned.  Wigs, also be Malek, were totally appropriate for the time period, didn’t move an inch through all that hoofing and get a big high-five from me.

BOTTOM LINE:  It’s official:  Purple Light Theatre can werq a musical.  Their Hairspray is, largely, a success, especially performance-wise.  Gotta watch those technical details, though.  It’s hard because small theater is packed with everyone doing ten different jobs simultaneously, but this show would have been well served by the leadership backing up a sec and reassessing the priorities of the production. I do, however, have to commend Tommy Malek and his entire team for their phenomenal effort and admittedly wonderful performance of Baltimore’s claim-to-fame musical.  Go and see it, if only to shed one single tear for the team of Schulman & Guyton singing “It Takes Two”.

Running at Purple Light Theatre until August 8th

SECOND OPINION?

Review: Hairspray at Purple Light Theatre Company

Email Achilles Feels at achillesfeels@gmail.com

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