Monday, September 12, 2011

Joyful Hairspray is Awesome

by Sharon Falduto

Coralville - Joy.

Joy is the feeling that infuses the cast, and so the audience, of City Circle's Hairspray.

The musical is a riot of color and song; if your toes aren't tapping and you don't leave humming, then your soul must be dead, my friend. It is a joy to watch each actor interpret their role, and furthermore, it's a joy to enjoy a show in the brand new Coralville Center for the Performing Arts. How lucky we are to live in a community that places a priority on artistic endeavors and funded such a wonderful venue, with brilliant acoustics and wonderful sight lines, even for those of us who were seated in the very last row of the balcony.

Hairspray is set in 1962 Baltimore, and deals with a range of issues: racism, sizeism, and the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. The heart of the musical is its star, Tracy Turnblad, who doesn't let her plus size stop her from dreaming big and landing a spot dancing on the “American Bandstand” style “Corny Collins Show.” Elizabeth Breed perfectly inhabits the character of Tracy; full of life and joy and dreams. Elizabeth's voice soars above the crowd, and her spot on delivery of comic asides was wonderful to hear. Her Tracy carried herself tall and proud, as Tracy should; Tracy forces us to look beyond a person's size, or skin color, to hear the heart behind the facade.

The role of Tracy's mother, Edna, is traditionally played by a man, a habit that began with the original John Waters' movie and its inclusion of Divine in this part. In our show, we get the privilege of watching Chuck Bogh evolve from a sad sack washerwoman whom life has beaten down into a strong and powerful woman who owns the stage. The attraction and chemistry is strong and clear between Edna and her husband, Doug Beardsley as Wilbur, who portrays Tracy's joke-shop owning dad with a spryness of physical movement in the mold of Art Carney. The two of them share a duet in Timeless to Me that is touching, funny, and warm.

The mean girls of the show are Janelle Barrow as Amber Von Tussle and Carrie Houchins-Witt as her mother, Velma. They are delightfully and devilishly cruel, especially as Velma plots her daughter's future at the expense of others' pain in Miss Baltimore Crabs. If I have one complaint about Amber, it is that her dancing may be too good—when Mother rebukes her for her horrible dancing on the Corny Collins show, I thought, “Wait, really? I thought she was good!”

Justin Mangrinch's Corny Collins had a great talk show host delivery and style, flipping his microphone with studied ease as he rolled with the movements of a new direction. Tracy's love interest, Link Larkin, was played by Esack Grueskin with an Elvis-type swagger.

Issues of race come to the fore when Tracy lands in detention and meets Seaweed, who helps her learn new dance moves, and who shares an instant attraction to Tracy's friend Penny. I enjoyed watching Tevin Jones as Seaweed, as he moved and glided across the floor with his killer dance moves. I did occasionally have a hard time understanding some of his lines, though.

Seaweed's mother is Motormouth Maybelle, the DJ who spins platters when it is “Negro Day” on the Corny Collins Show. Deandra Watkins' DJ patter is fun and fresh, and when she sings, the roof lifts off the house. Her bio says this is her first musical, and I certainly hope it isn't her last; it's almost enough to make me want to head to her church to hear her sing again.

Seaweed's sister Li'l Inez, played by Mekela Spence, was cute and fun to watch as the 6th grader danced and sang as well as any adult on the stage.

The only flawed note was Kenneth Van Egdon's choice to play Harriman F. Spritzer, advertising force behind the Corny Collins show, as an over-the-top Richard Nixon impersonation.

My personal favorite characters were the Pingletons, Penny and her mother Prudy. Victoria Vaughn's Penny spends the first act in a state of bewildered innocence, wandering amongst the players in choreographed dances in I Can Hear the Bells and misunderstanding the world around her. When she meets Seaweed, her character arc bends away from scared little girl into woman. Her mother, repressed Prudy, was played with great gusto and just the right amount of comic overacting by Robyn Calhoun.

The original choreography by Nolte Academy of Dance was always spot on; each group dance filled the stage in such a way as to look full but not too crowded, and when we are first introduced to the African American dancers, we can tell right away that their dance style is different, looser, more free, than the Corny Collins regulars who suddenly look stiff and square in comparison.

It is a tribute to Chad Larabee's direction, certainly, that at every moment in every scene, each character knew what he or she was doing. When my eyes wandered from the principles, I could tell that each member of the cast was reacting exactly the way their character should, even if they were not the focus. It was noticeable, however, that the character of Brenda's exit (for nine months, wink wink), which precipitated Tracy's shot on the Corny Collins Show, was not complete—in that Brenda, or at least the actress who played her, kept showing up in other scenes, wearing the same dress, as my 10 year old companions noted. The Dynamites, played by Naomi Spence, Taisha Poole, and Chastity Dillard, were a kind of Supremes-style Greek chorus who added color and soul to many scenes. Each member of the “council” of dancers on the Corny Collins show was fun to watch, as they moved in unison in strong dance numbers.

I Know Where I've Been by Motormouth Maybelle is a strong second act song accompanied by choreography that was more abstract than other dances in the show, representing the struggles of African Americans in the early parts of the civil rights movement. Though I love the song, I have a quibble with this part of the book of the musical—because the person who has the idea for a march on the TV station to demand that “every day be Negro day” was not Motormouth, Seaweek, or even L'il Inez, but Tracy; it is unfortunate that we seem to have a tradition of writing plots in which the white person is the one who rallies the minorities to action in order to help themselves.

I took two 10-year-olds to the show with me. They spent the remainder of the evening alternating between singing the show's fabulous closing number, You Can't Stop the Beat, and the song in which we are first introduced to the mother/daughter dynamic, Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now. All of the songs are hummable, danceable, and joyful.

I'd like to give props to producer Chris Okiishi, who introduced the show, for saying it was the first “ticketed in advance, assigned seat” production, thereby acknowledging that the All in a Day Play Festival did precede it. Chris also announced the backstage tours of the new space are available for purchase.

I will leave you with the words of my companions after the show: “That. Was. Awesome.”

(Photos by ICPixx.)
(Additional reporting by Rachel Falduto and Mary Vander Weg)


Anonymous said...

All I can say is if you haven't seen "Hairspray" yet, you are missing an electrifying experience!

ChazBinIC said...

Great review in all but one major point. Your take on Motormouth needing Tracey to lead her in the march against the TV station comepletely ignores the first record shop scene where Motormouth lists their long struggle to overcome. "We pressured the Mayor and petitioned the Guv...and what do we day a month!!" It also ignores her statements to her long struggle to break through the front door immediately preceeding the song "I Know Where I've Been" where she states "I'm gonna keep lining up until someday somebody breaks through. And I've been looking at that door alot longer than you." Tracey asks, "What door?" Motormouth replies, "The front door."

Motormouth's struggle started long before Tracey came along. Tracey was the way that Motormouth could finally break through. She was an ally from the "other side" that Motormouth never had. If anything Tracey was a tool used by Motormouth to reach her goal.

I respectfully disagree with you on that point.