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Tuesday, 18 October 2011 17:24

Big hair, big dreams and bigotry in Baltimore

Written by Andrea Braun
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The Details

wustl.edu/David Kilper
wustl.edu/David Kilper

If you don’t live under a rock, you probably know the name “Tracy Turnblad,” or at least recognize Hairspray as more than a product to set your coiffure. Born in the twisted mind of John Waters with the divine Divine as Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s zaftig mama, the 1988 movie became a cult film. In 1998, work began to re-imagine it as a big, splashy Broadway musical. Speaking as a fan of the original, I wish that hadn’t been done, but the result is surprisingly fun. The show’s finale is a big, bold number called “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” and apparently no one can. Since 2002, Hairspray has played around the world. The current production at Washington University’s Edison Theatre is highly entertaining and mostly capably rendered.

The Black Rep and WU’s performing arts department are collaborating on this show, just as they did with last year’s impressive Ragtime. Professional actors are cast in some of the major roles, but students play most of the characters. The pros are Johanna Elkana-Hale (Tracy), Zachary Allen Farmer (Edna), J. Scott Matthews (Wilbur Turnblad) and Courtney Elaine Brown (Velma Von Tussle, especially impressive dancing in a surgical boot!). The story is about Tracy’s hopes and dreams of romance and fame and fortune, not at all unusual for a 16-year-old girl, but she has some strikes against her. Her loving parents are poor and eccentric so her background isn’t a huge obstacle, but she is also overweight and a liberal thinker. In all its incarnations, Hairspray speaks out against bigotry, but this version seems particularly focused on racial inequality as a theme from the background of the set to the foreground of the dance floor.

Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Megan Lacerenza) rush home from school every day to watch “The Corny Collins Show” (Corny is played by Eric Newfield), a sort of Baltimore “American Bandstand.” Tracy would love to be on the show herself, and when an opening arises, she is there to try out. She manages through grit and talent and sheer height of hair to get past the Von Tussles. Mrs. Von Tussle is a cross between the wicked witch in Snow White and Cruella de Vil and her daughter, Amber (Marissa Barnathan) is a mini-mom. Tracy becomes a member of “the council,” as the kids are called. She quickly takes Amber’s boyfriend, an Elvis wannabe named Link (Pete Winfrey) and Amber’s place as most popular dancer.

Tracy doesn’t understand why the program is segregated, however. Once a month, there is a special “negro day,” but the races never mingle. To demonstrate the separation in the volatile racial atmosphere of early 1960s Baltimore, the black kids dance behind a gleaming crystal curtain of sorts, while the white kids are upfront. It becomes Tracy’s mission to bring down that barrier and integrate the show. She also wants to become “Miss Teenage Hairspray” (Corny Collins’ sponsor is Ultra Clutch and cans of hairspray are fired often and at random). Can she do it? Well, what do you think?

Elkana-Hale is a radiant Tracy. Her singing voice is lovely, if maybe just a tiny bit mature, and she can move. She is engaging and believable. Matthews is a loveable and loving father throughout. Farmer starts rather slowly, but once he warms up, he is a terrific Edna except for one rather distracting physical issue: He’s too thin. He’s padded and he has huge breasts, but his weight and diet jokes tend to fall flat, as do those of “Motormouth” Maybelle (Diamond Skinner). But I’m not going to complain about Skinner because she is otherwise perfect. Though she’s a student, she plays Seaweed’s (Ari Scott) and Little Inez’s (Desiree Thomas) mother credibly, but most of all, she has an amazing voice. Elkana-Hale has great pipes, but Skinner is more than her match. In fact, most actors who play Tracy can’t sing as well as Elkana-Hale, and Maybelle is ordinarily cast with a belter. She even has the 11”oclock number, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a stirring anthem about the challenges of blackness, and Tracy sings backup with the other kids.

Maybelle has a record store and she deejays the “negro days” at the show. To Tracy, she’s a celebrity, but Velma Von Tussle, who is also Corny Collins’ producer, only sees both Maybelle and Tracy as potential sources of trouble. Brown plays Velma to the hilt and milks the part for all the comedy available. Tracy has an idea to integrate the program on “Mother-Daughter Day” with Maybelle and Inez leading the way, but it all goes wrong and the whole group ends up in jail, giving the women in the cast a chance to show their stuff on “The Big Dollhouse,” the opening number of Act II.

Some of the music is excellent because of comic character definition (“Miss Baltimore Crabs,” “Cooties”) and some for its own sake (“Good Morning Baltimore,” “You’re Timeless to Me,” “Big, Blonde and Beautiful,” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” among others). Hairspray is strongest in its moments rather than as a whole show, such as when Wilbur and Edna demonstrate how much in love they still are in “You’re Timeless to Me”; “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” in which Edna Penny and Amber assert themselves to their moms (including Marisa Coury as Prudy Pingleton); and “Run and Tell That,” when all the kids discover that their similarities are more important than their differences.

Technically, most aspects of the show are good. Sean Savoie’s lighting, Robert Mark Morgan’s set, and Sarita Fellows’ costumes stand out. Millie Garvey choreographs dances that look more difficult than they are, and knows how to place the cast so the stronger dancers draw the eye. Ron Himes direction is on point, and his eye is on the details. But the sound is awful, and that’s just not acceptable for a musical. There are no overhead mikes which can cause that problem, so I can’t really diagnose it. An issue with the individual mikes? Maybe. Anyway, the board operator’s solution every time the sound became muddy was to turn it up, so there was a lack of consistency in the voices. The actors may be partly to blame because not all of them articulate especially well, and the band is way too loud—by now, Charles Creath (Music Director) should have gotten its volume adjusted.

Otherwise, this young, enthusiastic, hard-working cast gives us our money’s worth in entertainment. The show is clean, so you can take the kids, and it has a lesson they need to learn. I’ve always found the portrayal of racial disharmony simplistic in this show, and even superficial in some productions, but not so much here. An abstract backdrop of people in pain is always visible behind the gilded curtain and the bright colors up front, and that helps keep the real issue before us. The Sunday matinee was lightly attended, but I hope the evening shows are drawing better crowds because Hairspray is a whole buncha fun but still carrying a message for all those who judge others by wealth, race or appearance.

NOTE: Music is by Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman. The book is by Marc O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Orchestrations of Shaiman’s arrangements are by Harold Wheeler.

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