Monday, July 9, 2012

Hairspray Has Volume, Lacks Bounce

By Sarah Jarmon; photos by Alisabeth Von Presley

TCR - When Tracy Turnblad (Emma Drtina) rolled onstage in a perpendicular bed singing "Good Morning, Baltimore," I was immediately excited for what I was sure was going to be a rock solid production. The lights accented the interestingly angular set pieces and complemented the wildly-patterned costumes magnificently. But while the music was well-executed and the back-up singers were flawless, Tracy seemed slightly stiff and nervous. Throughout the production I waited for this feeling to smooth out into a more comfortable energy, but it never quite did.

This show, for me, was all about production values. The set design made excellent use of the stage, utilizing all of the vertical space for flown-in pieces like the sign for the Corny Collins Show and fencing and prison bars that descended from the rafters. There was great use of levels too, a giant can of hairspray loomed above the dancers in the last scene and a rising platform complete with stunning blue lights lifted Link Larkin, played by Josh Payne, a few feet above his back-up singers during "It Takes Two."

The director’s vision gave the show a multi-dimensional feel with the actors coming through the audience occasionally for entrances and transforming the theatre audience into the studio audience for the on-air dance competition. Some members of the crowd even appeared to get lightly dusted with glitter from confetti canons during the visually exciting finale.

Costumes were picture-perfect, showcasing all of the major elements of fashion in the early sixties. Colors blazed across every actor, patterns and hues made the characters pop. Even the props were well-chosen and expertly displayed.

There was a smattering of technical issues -- microphones crackling or simply not working -- that drove me crazy but the actors handled these mishaps gracefully.

Where the musical lacked, sadly, was in the caliber of the singing and dancing. The cast members weren’t bad -- they just weren’t stunning. Drtina has a rich, solid alto but had support issues in a few key places, most notably during "You Can’t Stop the Beat," where she dropped half a verse to catch her breath. And this was not the only place where song lyrics were dropped, there were also a few lines dropped during "Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now," albeit not by Tracy.

The sound issues also made it hard to hear soloists during big group numbers. And there were a few solos that should have had more power than they did Friday night. Deandrea Leigh Watkins, who played Motormouth Maybelle, again, had a good voice but her two songs lacked the punch needed to carry that character.

That is not to say there weren’t brilliant moments; Link Larkin had a beautiful voice. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a little bit of a 14-year-old girl moment during "It Takes Two." And Ezekiel Pittmon, playing Seaweed J. Stubbs, nearly knocked me over during "Run and Tell That!" His voice was simultaneously silky and gritty, which sounds contradictory, but it’s the only way I can describe it. It was gorgeous. The Dynamite girls were also fantastic, prompting a lot of appreciative comments from the crowd both during the performance and in the lobby.

What disappointed me most, perhaps, was the dancing. In a musical about a dance competition I just expected more from the dance numbers. It’s important for me to note that, in order for the choreographer to remain true to the dances of the time, the choreography had to be fairly simplistic. As such, the dance scenes should have been tight. However I caught actors throwing glances at other cast mates to ensure they had the choreography right several times. This is acceptable if you’re in the back row but when you’re in the front, it’s very distracting.

The most exciting dancing happened in detention and in Motormouth Maybelle’s studio when Tracy, Penny, and Link went with Seaweed to dance there. Perhaps this is because the African-American dancers were supposed to be better than their counterparts on Corny’s show, making race the only reason that they weren’t allowed to be featured. After all, talent overcoming prejudice and racial intolerance is a major theme.

But this theme seemed to be a bit lost. During integration there was more strife. No one at Maybelle’s really seemed to mind that these white kids crashed their party. The people running the Corny Collins show really only seemed to think black people were a little bit bothersome. The stakes just weren’t there. The possibility of violence seemed to be nonexistent, even when all the dancers were locked up together. That is perhaps a sin that the script committed but its absence felt disingenuous.

However, there were lovely honest moments too. Michael Holmes as Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother, was a comforting and lovable character, although I would have loved for her to have had more make-up and a wig earlier than she did because I just didn’t see her as a woman without make-up on, I saw a man who called himself Tracy’s mother. Still, the relationship between Edna and Wilbur (Mark Baumann) was endearing, and rendered “(You’re) Timeless to Me” one of my favorite songs in the show.

My other favorite song of the evening was probably “I Can Hear the Bells.” The unrequited longing rang so true that my chest ached for Tracy, even as she practically ran over her best friend who was there to support her.

This was a good show; there were just a lot of issues. I’d definitely see it again, the music was fun and fresh, the moral a good one, and the production elements alone make it worth the ticket price. TCR has set itself a high standard for excellence, and in my opinion Hairspray did not quite meet that mark on Friday. I may have been the only one with that opinion, however; the crowd certainly loved it. When the final note of "You Can’t Stop the Beat" rang out, there was a standing ovation.

Hairspray runs through July 28, 7:30 Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 Sunday, on TCR's mainstage. Tickets are $25-30 ($20 student/youth).

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