Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Divine Intervention – Tony-winning "Hairspray" Can’t Stop the Beat in Northern Virginia

Review by Mark A. Newman

Baltimore is reborn with newfound glee (allusion intended) on the stage of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., with the rollicking new production of Hairspray, a show that threatens to literally bring down the house. I was doubtful when Signature announced it was mounting this musical ode to John Waters’ 1988 film namely because there was so much dancing. While the other shows at this venue have been great, if not phenomenal, none of them has ever really had a lot of dancing. Until now.

The choreography by Karma and Brianne Camp was delightful but the group of actor/singer/dancers who pulled off the moves deserve accolade after accolade. As previously mentioned, when the entire cast was busting a move on the Singature’s thrust stage, the audience could not stop the beat either as everyone felt the vibrations from the stage reminiscent of  the “Sensurround” effect touted when the 1970s disaster movie Earthquake played in theaters. But this shaking, rattling, and rolling was a lot more fun. Plus, no Charlton Heston.

I don’t feel compelled to recount the plot since anyone who reads these blogs is already in the know about storylines to major musicals. However, I will say that the racial inequality aspect of the storyline—the raison d’etre for the show’s plucky hero, Tracy Turnblad—seems even more poignant in 2012 when the U.S. is in the midst of our first black president’s first term. I actually wondered what these fictional characters would have thought of our country’s progress from the show’s 1962 setting.

As portrayed by Carolyn Cole, this Tracy has a sweetness, cuteness, and awkwardness that can only be described with one word: adorable! Hairspray is to Tracy Turnblad as Les Miserables is to Jean Valjean; the show rests on her petite shoulders. A lackluster Tracy will definitely mean a lackluster Hairspray. Fortunately Cole will make you forget all about the previous Tracys you may have seen in the past. Her singing and dancing abilities are without compare and her cuteness makes her a very believable romantic interest for the show’s Elvis wannabe, Link Larkin. That wasn’t necessarily the case for some other Tracys.

As Link, Patrick Thomas Cragin could be considered an atypical choice. While you could see why Tracy would swoon for him with his youthful swagger and boyish looks, it may be less obvious why the girls of Baltimore would. While not unattractive, Cragin has a look that is, well, more subjective. Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton would likely say when informed of Tracy’s crush, “Yeah, if that’s your type.” And speaking of Penny, Lauren Williams’ portrayal of this awkward nerdy girl is goofy, odd, and nothing short of awesome.

If Tracy carries the show, then the object of Penny’s desires, Seaweed J. Stubbs played by James Hayden Rodriguez, is the unabashed scene stealer. The role is a showcase for whoever plays it; had the role existed in the 30s or 40s it would’ve been ideal for a young Sammy Davis, Jr. But Rodriguez lights up the stage—especially in “Run and Tell That.” Sammy would be proud.

Aside from Tracy, the other two divas are Motormouth Maybelle portrayed by Nova Y. Payton and Edna Turnblad portrayed by D.C. radio and TV personality Robert Aubry Davis. Like the show’s boot-scooting cast, Payton brings down the house; at the end of the only serious song in the show—Motormouth’s ode to hard times, “I Know Where I’ve Been”—she got applause, cheers, and a standing ovation from an admiring audience, and it was much deserved. It was one of those goosebump-inducing moments so rare in the theatre.

And then there’s Edna. Played on Broadway by the great Harvey Fierstein and in the film by John Travolta, Davis has some pretty big orthopedic shoes to fill. It should be noted that Davis is not an actor. Unfortunately that is evident in his uncomfortable portrayal of the show’s “biggest” character. Davis should be given props for being game for the role but his Edna had the same flailing reaction throughout and reminded me of those “womanless weddings” rural communities would perform as fundraisers where the city fathers and sons would dress up as women to the delight of their wives/sisters/constituents. Edna’s reservations about Tracy’s desire to be on TV and then to make herself the voice of a local social movement seem to echo Davis’ own reticence about taking this over-the-top role.

But wait, there are more divas: Amber Von Tussle is Tracy’s rival for virtually everything, and her mother Velma Von Tussle is the producer of the Corny Collins Show, the American Bandstandish dance program that figures prominently in the show. Erin Driscoll’s Amber is a classic “mean girl” and she plays her with a snappy attitude and oozes contempt…in a good way. As her mom, Sherri L. Edelen’s Velma is self-entitled, underhanded nitwit who will stop at nothing to make sure Amber is the star attraction. Oh, and she’s racist. And a control freak. Instead of a soccer mom she’s a sock hop mom…from hell. Edelen plays her with just the right amount of vitriol and venom to inspire fear in those around her.

The only person who did mess with Velma was Corny Collins himself who, like Tracy, was ready to take his show into the brave new world of integration. Filling Corny’s plaid suit was Stephen Gregory Smith whose mixture of smarm and integrity was an interesting balancing act but Smith seemed comfortable as a makeshift ringmaster for the nutty antics going on around him; Corny is actually as close to normal as any character in the show.
While the ensemble was exceptional—the dancing was easily as good as any I’ve seen on the Great White Way—I need to single out one supporting player whose expressive face and dancing eyebrows deserve an award of their own. Chorus member Nick Hovesepian resembles the living caricature of Dick York from the opening of the Bewitched TV series. He looks nothing like York—he actually looks like the love child of Jim Carrey and Roddy McDowall—but with his slicked-back hair, sugar bowl ears, and a rubber face, he would fit right in with the antics at the Stevens home and his reactions always inspired a chuckle.

The sets by Daniel Conway were ideal for the era and the Signature’s limited space and brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “shabby chic.” However, the theater space, which has worked so well in the past, seemed to encumber the production during key scenes. For example, when the “nicest kids you know” were all dancing their hearts out on the Corny Collins Show, Edna, Penny, and Wilbur were watching on TV. The TV watchers were situated at the rear of the stage and not easily visible to a good portion of the audience. Having the secondary scene on a raised platform or even in the front would’ve solved this problem but it certainly didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the show. Colin K. Bill’s lighting was spot on (no pun intended), but Kathleen Geldard’s costumes were a bit of a letdown, especially in the big reveal after Tracy and Edna’s makeovers. When they stepped out from backstage, their matching dresses were pretty plain, the colors blended in too easily with what the rest of the cast was wearing, thus they didn’t stand out and take center stage as they should.   

Make no mistake, Signature Theatre’s Hairspray will move you. And when the entire cast is rocking and rolling onstage in the show’s uproarious finale of “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” you might actually need a seatbelt!

Side Note: “Good Morning Baltimore” has got to be one of the best opening numbers written for a Broadway musical in the last 20 years. Why the city of Baltimore hasn’t adopted it as its official song is a mystery to me…maybe it’s the lyrics about rats, bums, and the flasher? At least the rats dance and the bum and flasher are friendly.
Follow Mark on twitter at MarkNYC64.

Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206

Featuring: Robert Aubry Davis (Edna Turnblad) Carolyn Cole (Tracy Turnblad), Nova Y. Payton (Motormouth Mable), Sherri L. Edelen (Velma Von Tussle), Patrick Thomas Cragin (Link Larkin), Harry A. Winter (Wilbur Turnblad), Erin Driscoll (Amber Von Tussle), James Hayden Rodriguez (Seaweed), Stephen Gregory Smith (Corny Collins), and Lauren Williams (Penny Pingleton), Jennifer Cameron, Matthew Conner, Parker Drown, Jamie Eacker, Nick Hovsepian, Brandi Knox, Sean-Maurice Lynch, Kirstin Riegler, Nickolas Vaughan, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Matthew Wojtal, and Stephen Scott Wormley.

Based on the 1988 film Hairspray by John Waters

Book: Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Director: Eric Schaeffer
Scenic Design: Daniel Conway
Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
Lighting Design: Colin K. Bills
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Music Directon: Jon Kalbfleisch
Choreography: Karma Camp and Brianne Camp

Tickets: 703-820-9771; ticketmaster: 703-573-SEAT tickets@signature-theatre.org

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