BWW Reviews: A Lot to See in Wheelock Family Theatre's HAIRSPRAY
Hairspray is not an unknown musical. With its long Broadway run, its original 1988 film, and the successful 2007 musical remake, not to mention the incredibly hummable soundtrack, Hairspray is arguably one of the most well known musicals in history. So going into the Wheelock Family Theatre's production this past weekend, I already had some expectations.
The first look of the show undoubtedly fulfilled these expectations. The set, designed by Janie E Howland, was classically mod, with simple geometric shapes, bright colors, and many different levels. The lighting, designed by Scott Clyve, gracefully collided with the scenic elements, utilizing colors and beautiful backlighting that framed the set wonderfully. And the costumes, designed by Lisa Simpson, aligned with this colorful aesthetic as well, presenting time appropriate and impressively detailed looks for each one of the large cast's members. The designers clearly worked well together, creating a harmonious and sensorially engaging look.
From the moment the curtain rose, there was an impressive energy that swept over the audience, and I could see the people around me, particularly the children, getting caught up by the performers' excitement. That being said, I had some problems from the start. Staging wise, this production was busy. There was obviously a great deal of attention paid to detail, but almost to a fault, where there was so much happening all around me that I didn't always know where to look. I am firmly against actors performing in the aisles and the back of the house when there is a proscenium theatre, as attentions are divided and audience members are forced to twist and turn to try to see what's going on. Maybe some viewers enjoy being so close to the action, but I was more afraid of getting hit by the flailing dancer next to me than excited to see them up close.
Additionally, I had an issue with how this production bent the original script. Jenna Lea Scott, who played Tracy Turnblad, is a very smart, very talented actress, who happens to be Asian. And while I have no issue with colorblind casting (in fact, I think it could be utilized more often), I do have an issue with it when the story centers around race. Hairspray is about the divide between white and black and having the leading lady be a third race seemed to confuse the story. There were awkward attempts to acknowledge it (like added lines about her being adopted and someone calling her an "almost white girl"), but it just seemed odd.
I am aware that Wheelock is a family theatre and strives for inclusiveness, which is admirable, and maybe the goal was to imply that Tracy being a minority too gave her greater empathy for the prejudice being enacted. However, that's not how the play is written. Scott gave an impressive performance and I was happy to watch her onstage, but it seemed to complicate the story that the original creators had hoped to tell. Perhaps this choice is actually a strong, positive one, tackling bigger and more all-encompassing issues of racial injustice, but in the case of this one reviewer, I did not think those distinctions were clear. I would have preferred a more specific statement on the material written rather than a less clear, more grandiose one.
The bending of the script continued with the cast's tongue in cheek acknowledgement of the fact that Edna Turnblad was played by a man. This show has been around for awhile now and the role is almost always played by a male actor, so I didn't think the jokes made at the expense of that fact were necessary. As an audience, we are willing to suspend our disbelief, so I don't think we needed that commentary. The show on a whole walked a fine line between stylized and hokey, and I'm not sure which it achieved overall.
I do not mean to be completely critical of the piece, as I really did enjoy myself. There were some phenomenal performances, like Michael Notardonato as Link Larkin, whose silky smooth voice and darling bewilderment made for a classic teen idol, Jon Allen as Seaweed, whose charm, ease, and brilliant dancing was a spot of a sunshine, and Aimee Doherty as Velma Von Tussle, who balanced her evil and powerful belt with perfect comedic timing. And the ensemble as a whole was incredibly dedicated and energetic, belting out beautiful harmonies while taking on impossibly challenging choreography, all of which is no easy task.
Critique aside, the show is a fantastic experience for audiences, especially children who aren't as aware of the racial and political aspects of the show and who might be excited by actors in arms reach. It is a beautiful production aesthetically and makes for a very fun, very energetic night. That I will admit.