BWW Reviews: Cross-dressing for Kids: HAIRSPRAY and PETER PAN in Hartford
A Musical Production of the Play by Sir James Barrie
Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh
Additional Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Music by Moose Charlap
Additional Music by Jule Styne
Directed by Glenn Casale
National Tour at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through November 27
Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman
Directed by Ryan Ratelle
Hartford Children’s Theatre performing at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art’s Aetna Theater through November 27
Thanksgiving, a family holiday if ever there was one, found an odd confluence of shows playing in Hartford’s theaters. A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas commenced its annual run at Hartford Stage. Across Bushnell Park, the national tour of Peter Pan returned to The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. And right in between the two, the Hartford Children’s Theatre marked its return, after many years, to performing in the Aetna Theater at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. In a city of Hartford’s size, having three shows playing simultaneously is not such a big deal. What is noteworthy is that (a) they are all vying for a family audience, (b) they all feature showy star turns, and (c) they all, oddly, feature cross-dressing. For something normally labeled “alternative lifestyle” (a.k.a. things usually shunned by those who espouse “family values”), all three of these family shows feature noteworthy gender-swapped performances…and nobody ran out of the theatre covering their children’s eyes.
Now, I won’t spend time reviewing Hartford Stage’s noteworthy A Christmas Carol. Having arrived at Hartford Stage in 1998 with Artistic Director and adapter Michael Wilson, the production is still a sturdy, crowd-pleaser with Hartford’s favorite Ebenezer Scrooge, Bill Raymond, merrily mugging away after so many years. The transgendered twist occurs in the secondary roles of Jacob Marley’s and Scrooge’s chambermaid Mrs. Dilber. Returning to the role he originated in the production, Noble Shropshire returns as the sour maid and the dour ghost. When Scrooge flirts relentlessly with Dilber at the end of the play, it takes on an odd, and oddly entertaining, twist that elicits giggles from the audience.
In Cathy Rigby’s acclaimed production of Sir James Barrie’s musicalized Peter Pan, you have a double-drag in progress. Not only is Rigby a female playing a male, she is also an AARP-qualified woman playing a boy who refuses to grow up. With Rigby’s nuanced, indefatigable and acrobatic performance, one doesn’t much care as much as one buys her efforts lock, stock and barrel. Rigby’s tomboyish attitude and Broadway belt are a surprising mix, but they work beautifully and defy her age. Having played the role on and off for over two decades (including four stops on Broadway), one would expect maybe a bit of fatigue or formula to have taken over. There isn’t a whiff of it. I must admit that entering the theater, I was prepared to be dismissive of not only someone as old as Rigby playing the part, but I have never understood why the role has essentially been relegated to middle-aged women. Why not cast a boy to play a boy? One only need watch YouTube videos of Mary Martin and Sandy Duncan's performances to know that it is a woman playing the part. After seeing Rigby in the part, I feel she is welcome to be a boy until she is no longer capable of swooping, flipping and dazzling. If one is willing to suspend their belief so that fairies exist, pirates run from crocodiles, and English sheepdogs can be nannies, a retirement-aged female gymnast can be the eternal man-child.
The rest of the Peter Pan production is similarly sturdy and energetic. Tom Hewitt is a serviceable, if unexceptional, Captain Hook. One senses there is an untapped level of hamminess that could be uncorked as the tour progresses. Into the Woods’ Kim Crosby is a fine Mrs. Darling, mermaid and grown-up Wendy. As the young Wendy, Krista Buccellato is perhaps a wee bit old, being a recent college graduate. I know this is counterintuitive after giving Rigby a free pass for being approximately a half-century too old for her part. Buccellato has a fine voice and a gamine presence that is a nice counterpoint to Rigby’s rough-and-tumble Pan. Cade Canon Ball (an awesome name if there ever was one) makes for a terrific John Darling, while his brother Michael Darling is ably played by two young ladies, Julia Massey and Jordyn Davis, who switch off the role (again with the cross-dressing). Special credit goes to Clark Roberts who cross-dresses on all fours as the sheepdog Nana and a crocodile that is a tick-tocking terror. Jenna Wright does a fine job as the Indian princess Tiger Lily, but her costume makes her seem like she is heading straight from Neverland to her pole-dancing gig at Tinkerbelles. Wright’s exceptional duet with Rigby on “Ugg-a-Wugg” turns into an all-out, show-stopping, percussive frenzy. The company, consisting of various Indians, pirates and Lost Boys, keep apace and do the production proud. By the time Rigby takes her last flying bows and soars over the audience, everyone has been transported to Neverland.
As A Christmas Carol and Peter Pan take us to Victorian England (and Neverland), the Hartford Children’s Theatre transports us back to Baltimore in the 1960s. While A Christmas Carol grapples with the financial inequities of the Steam Age (something particularly resonant this holiday season), Hairspray tackles the similarly thorny racial issues that still plague cities like Hartford where white flight has left former “minorities” firmly in the majority. Based on subversive filmmaker John Waters’ 1988 comedy of the same name, the 2002 musical and its subsequent film became huge hits. As a big fan of the underground director Waters, I was a bit nauseous at the thought of a cheery, colorful musical inspired by the work of the man that made Divine eat doggie-doo and introduced the world to the first singing prolapsed anus. Wary, I went to see the show on Broadway with its Tony Award-winning stars Marissa Jaret Winokur, Dick Latessa and Harvey Fierstein. I was completely won over by the 60s pastiche score, electrifying performances and eye-popping color palette. The Broadway team had managed to take my beloved Hairspray and make it their own, while injecting little bits of John Waters naughtiness to satisfy the faithful. The star-studded film adaptation took the property in a more satisfying dramatic direction by turning down some of the cartoonishness and adding greater sensitivity to certain roles, in particular the part of Edna Turnblad. Which, once again, brings us back to cross-dressing.
The choice for the Hartford Children’s Theatre to stage Hairspray is an interesting one. Not only is one of the major characters routinely performed in drag, there is much naughty humor peppered throughout. Whereas one could safely bring a child to Peter Pan, I have seen more than one mother drag a traumatized toddler out of A Christmas Carol at Hartford Stage, barely lasting the first few moments when the ghosts march out onstage. Hairspray has many an off-color joke. Far from a prude, these are things that endeared me to the musical. I was surprised that no parent at the Hartford Children’s Theatre performance I attended, and there were many with children ranging from what I would estimate to be ages 4 on up, seemed to bat an eyelash at the lesbian jokes, dick jokes, STD jokes and slutty teen jokes. Even an offer from the gym teacher to shower with the students emitted a titter (Penn State, anyone??). Is Hairspray, with its catchy score and candy-colored costumes, a children’s show in grown-up drag or an adult show dressed down for kids? Judging from the big laughs and rounds of applause as the show went on (and the lack of children being hauled out of the theater), the parents in the crowd must have thought that some of the below-the-belt humor sailed right over their children’s heads. Certainly the campy references to Debbie Reynolds and Metrocal were lost on the kids, although possibly appreciated by their folks (or grandfolks).
Hartford Children’s Theatre’s production, directed by Ryan Ratelle with choreography by Lisa Foss, is extremely faithful to the Broadway production. Perhaps thanks to the omnipresent cans of Ultra-Clutch hairspray, the show is impeccably coiffed and occasionally stiff. The film/musical’s message about racial equality and positive body image are firmly in place. The performances vary from exceptional to fine. Despite being positioned as a star vehicle for the production’s Link Larkin, played by Anthony Fedorov, the film and the show rises and rises with its Tracy Turnblad. Following in the bouffant-shaded footsteps of Ricki Lake, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Nikki Blonsky, VictoRia Mooney channels her predecessors. She dances and sings her heart out without adding her own distinctive twist to the role. Pretty much the same could be said of the rest of the cast and the design. Everyone is working very hard to recreate the roles and designs created by their predecessors. What results is a highly entertaining facsimile of the Broadway production. Despite these quibbles, the Hartford Children’s Theater has mounted an eye-catching, professional production that looks gorgeous in the intimate, historic Wadsworth theatre space.
The best performances in the cast belong to Bethany Fitzgerald as Amber von Tussle (excellent in Playhouse on Park’s Chicago and similarly excellent here) and Shellie Giroux as her scheming mom, Amber von Tussle. Anthony Fedorov sings and acts the underwritten part of Link Larkin with panache. Being billed as the production’s main attraction, I was hoping that he would get a chance to perform the film version’s rough-and-tumble rocker “Ladies Choice,” but we had to be satisfied with an encore number from Fedorov’s recently-released debut album. Allison D. McMeans makes for a sound Motormouth Maybelle, belting out her Act 1 “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and, more powerfully, her Act 2 anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been.” As her daughter Little Inez, Journee Brown did a fabulous job using her minimal stage time for maximum effect. Corrado Alicata has a great deal of fun with his numbers as Corny Collins and Arnie Woelfel, Jr. manages to put his own stamp on the goofy jokester Wilbur Turnblad.
John Waters’ tailored the role of Edna Turnblad into a campy hoot for the drag queen Divine. After appearing as a housefrau in the midst of a breakdown in Polyester, Hairspray was the first time that Divine played a secondary role in a Waters film. Harvey Fierstein got major accolades for his star turn in the Broadway musical, which is surprising as it is positioned as a leading part and there is precious little about this supporting role that would indicate the performer must be in drag and it is far from central to the action. Surprisingly, John Travolta’s winsome performance in the 2008 film musical fleshed out the fleshy character the most, giving Edna dimension and a stake in the plot’s outcome. Ratelle opts to embrace the Broadway approach to the character with Matt Cornish having much fun in the part somewhat at the expense of potential pathos. Far from a drag, Cornish is far and away the best singer I have seen play Edna, and he/she steals the show with his/her two big sparkle-gown entrances in Act 1 and Act 2.
Mainly by accident, drag has hit the mainstream in Hartford with Peter Pan, Hairspray and A Christmas Carol. This may bode well for upcoming touring productions like La Cage Aux Folles, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Sister Act (with a lounge singer in nun drag). Whether or not these shows are positioned as appropriate for families, time will tell. At least for now, one hopes that Hartford parents will at least know better than to confuse Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat with TheaterWorks Hartford’s current production of The Motherf**ker with the Hat.
Photo by Thomas Giroir.