Santa Maria Civic Theatre opens its 59th season with an ambitious production of the musical “Hairspray.” It's not just a musical, but one with a fairly sizable cast and numerous dance-filled production numbers.
“Hairspray” first appeared in 1988, as a relatively family-friendly film from offbeat director John Waters. In 2002, the musical stage version premiered on Broadway. It was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, and won eight, including Best Musical. “Hairspray” returned to the silver screen as a movie musical in 2007; and just last year, a live television production aired on NBC.
Director Kyle Hawkins' production makes great use of the limited stage space. The backdrop features multicolored stripes with “Hairspray” painted across it, looking appropriately like a set from a 1960s TV broadcast. A row of tenement buildings can be seen peeking over stage left.
The year is 1962, and the place, Baltimore, Maryland. Tracy Turnblad is a teen who lives and breathes for "The Corny Collins Show," a local TV dance program. When the show announces auditions, Tracy leaps at the chance, but her mother, Edna (John Shade), fears that she'll be rejected because of her weight. Tracy's father Wilbur (Jim Dahmen) is more encouraging. “You gotta think big to be big!” he exclaims. “Big ain't the problem in this family, Wilbur,” Edna replies.
Corny Collins himself (Josh Cornell) introduces us to the “The Nicest Kids in Town,” a number that nostalgically pokes fun at the cheesiness of such shows. But not all of the “Nicest Kids” are nice. Amber Van Tussle (Becky Larson) is determined to steal the spotlight, egged on by her mother Velma (Christy Laschiver), who is also the show's producer.
From the opening vamp of “Good Morning Baltimore,” to the final chorus of the finale, “You Can't Stop the Beat,” the show's score is irresitably catchy. (Music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.) It incorporates various early '60s influences, from bubblegum pop to rhythm and blues. The majority of the numbers are upbeat, and the mood of the show is sentimental and optimistic, in the style of a musical comedy from Broadway's Golden Age.
Take Tracy's opening number, where she rises from bed, singing: “Good morning, Baltimore! Every day's like an open door! Every night's like a fantasy! Every sound's like a symphony!” But there's also a hint of quirkiness that helps it play to a modern audience. Tracy continues, “Good morning, Baltimore! There's the flasher who lives next door! There's the bum on his barroom stool! They wish me luck on my way to school!”
In this production, the teens are played by actual teens, which adds a great deal to the show's sense of youthful energy. Grace Kitchen throws herself wholeheartedly into the role of Tracy, gasping and squealing at everything she finds exciting. Particularly amusing and endearing is her uncontrollable passion for Link Larkin (Kai Rosales), the teen hearthrob of the Collins show.
Rosales is charming, as he calls Tracy “little darlin'” and sings her the Elvis-inspired “It Takes Two.” Since we're supposed to root for Tracy to wind up with him, it helps that we can see why she would like him so much.
But look who's wearing Link's class ring – it's Amber! While the character is supposed to be coasting on nepotism, the actress playing her is clearly here on talent. Larson's voice particularly stands out in “Mama I'm a Big Girl Now,” a trio with Tracy and her best friend, Penny Pingleton.
Libby Parker (no relation to this reviewer) plays Penny, the long-suffering daughter of the racist and overprotective Prudy Pingleton (Irene Dahmen). Parker makes a likable companion to Kitchen, matching her energy and enthusiasm as the two thrill to "The Corny Collins Show."
Cornell captures what is humorously, well, corny about Corny Collins, the slick-haired, ever-grinning TV host. He nails the fast-paced patter of “Nicest Kids in Town.” He also hints that the character has more depth, during his confrontations with Velma.
Jim Dahmen is delightful as Tracy's dad Wilbur, owner of a joke shop called “The Har-D-Har Hut.” It's nice to see a character who loves his family and his work so much.
Edna is traditionally a drag role, going back to the original movie, where she was played by John Waters regular Divine. Shade totally owns the role here, and is very likable. Edna hasn't left the house “since Mamie Eisenhower rolled her hose and bobbed her bangs” and it's heartwarming to see Tracy help her come out of her shell.
As Edna predicted, Velma verbally savages Tracy for her appearance. It's also here that writers Shamain and Thomas Meehan introduce show's underlying theme of social injustice. Tracy is asked, “Would you swim in an integrated pool?” and her affirmative answer seals her rejection. Under Velma's rule, the show is segregated, with a designated “Negro Day” just once a month.
Velma is a broadly written villain, but one that's clearly fun to play, as is apparent from watching Laschiver. Certainly, everything the character represents is despicable, and it's enjoyable to see her get taken down a peg.
But Tracy doesn't give up hope, even as she's sent to her detention for her “ratted” hairdo, “an enormous hair-don't.” There, she becomes fast friends with Seaweed J. Stubbs (Jaime Espinoza), the son of the “Negro Day” host, Motormouth Maybelle (Lynda Mondragon). As Seaweed, Espinoza radiates smooth confidence, especially in his number “Run and Tell That.”
Alexa Martinez plays Inez, Seaweed's little sister, who is also denied an audition by Velma. The young actress often stole the spotlight whenever she was onstage.
If you regularly attend Civic Theatre productions, you've probably seen Lynda Mondragon act, but you may not have heard her sing. As Motormouth, she brings down the house with each of her solos. Her “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” is a rousing finish to Act One, while her 11 o'clock number, “I Know Where I've Been,” adds a bit of dramatic punch to the show.
Irene Dahmen has a blast playing three different over the top characters: Besides Prudy, there's a gruff coach and a tapdancing prison matron.
Adding variety to the musical styles, there are some numbers sung by the older characters in styles from their youth. Velma sings a cha-cha number as she relives her triumph of winning “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” And Wilbur and Edna share a romantic duet that sort of comes out of nowhere, in terms of the plot. (The movie adaptation attempted to give it more context by showing the pair making up after a misunderstanding). It's sweet, nonetheless, especially as performed by Jim Dahmen and John Shade.
The show features an impressive variety of costumes by Sarah Buchanan, including the fabulous '60s fashions Tracy and Edna get from “Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway,” Glamorous gowns worn by the doo-wop chorus, Wilbur's loud ties, Corny's comical red sequined suit, and, of course, the giant hairdos sprayed with the titular product.
All of the plot threads are tied up rather quickly and neatly during the finale, but that's to be expected in this type of musical.
There's a novelty to seeing such a big show performed in such an intimate space -- the cast perform the energetic, fun choreography (Candace Rickman and Hannah Clabough) just a few feet away from your seat. The entire show builds to the big finish, “You Can't Stop the Beat,” and the audience can't stop the beat from grabbing them, too. Nor would they want to.