BWW Reviews: Joyful HAIRSPRAY Revival Gets Hold of O.C.
Though it may seem like every regional theater in the country has been mounting their own revival of the triumphant, eight-time Tony Award-winning HAIRSPRAY for the past two seasons, not all of them have probably managed to capture the kind of audacious big-ness (no pun intended) that the original production and subsequent professional iterations have displayed so winningly.
Thankfully, the latest local theater company to tackle this infectiously cheerful show happens to be Orange County-based 3D Theatricals, which in just a few short years has become quite a reliably entertaining presenter of familiar marquee titles in Southern California. Their limited engagement of this hit 2003 Tony Winner for Best Musical continues performances through October 28 at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton before moving to the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center for a short run, November 2-4.
Directed by 3D Theatricals co-founder and artistic director TJ Dawson, this eye-popping, high-energy production of HAIRSPRAY is about as terrific as the closing national touring company that rolled into Costa Mesa and Riverside in 2010 (and, well, lookee here... the very star of that same final tour, Danielle Arci, just happens to be headlining this new production as well). Using a mashup of HAIRSPRAY vets and newbies for its talented cast—shimmying-and-shaking against the same sets swiped right from the Broadway production—this HAIRSPRAY is wonderfully hefty, providing an admirable staging of one of the most enjoyable musical comedies of the past decade.
While not so much a fresh mounting but rather a really, really respectful recreation of a beloved show, 3DT's truly impressive version is so much genuine fun that even those who've seen it a gazillion times in the past (as I have) will enjoy it as if seeing it for the very first time. And, really, what's not to love? Adapted into a stage musical from John Waters' cult 1988 celluloid comedy, HAIRSPRAY contains all the elements—story, score, songs, characters—that, when combined, make for a fool-proof show... provided, of course, that it's executed correctly. To say 3DT did the show justice is putting it mildly.
A socially-conscious narrative wrapped in the packaging of a candy-colored musical comedy, HAIRSPRAY tracks the rise of a plucky, open-minded, full-figured teenager named Tracy Turnblad (Arci) whose heavily-teased hair is as big as her heart—as well as her go-for-broke dreams. With the encouragement of her sweet but dim-bulbed BFF Penny (scene stealer Alyssa Simmons) and her Joke Store owner dad Wilbur (the charming Barry Pearl), Tracy—against the wishes of her mother Edna (the awesome Paul Vogt)—lands the much-coveted spot dancing next to her celebrity crush Link Larkin (Jeff Standfield) on her favorite local TV dance show The Corny Collins Show. Her surprise casting is, as expected, met with protests of classmate Amber (Laura L. Thomas) and her wicked, unapologetically racist mother Velma (Jill Van Velzer), who just happens to be the TV show's producer.
Along the way, she befriends a group of African-American teens frequently stuck with her in detention, led by charismatic Seaweed J. Stubbs (Todrick Hall), who just happens to be the son of Motormouth Maybelle (the always superb Gwen Stewart), the fab, blonde-haired DJ of "Negro Day" on The Corny Collins Show. Ever friendly and optimistic, Tracy is enchanted by Seaweed's dance moves and chill attitude, prompting the future activist to openly declare that she wishes that "every day was Negro day." Thus begins her mission to not only change people's minds about her own abilities as an Ample-American, but to also open up the hearts and minds of her fellow Baltimore neighbors towards the "new frontier" of racial integration.
Buoyed by its memorable, melodic score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and its clever, witty book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, HAIRSPRAY—even in what seems like an umpteenth production—continues to be quite a crowd pleaser, primarily because underneath its facade of hysterical one-liners, delightfully cheeky humor, and gut-busting visual gags, lies a relatable, musicalized story of a kind-hearted social maverick beating the odds and persevering through the ugliness of people seeking to oppress those deemed to be different. Personified in a character we all want to root for, it's a theme, of course, that still resonates today—something many of the shows' fans have embraced wholeheartedly.
Aside from the rousing, like-new choreography from Dana Solimando and the show's use of the Broadway original's sets and costumes (and, my, they've held up nicely!), this HAIRSPRAY's giddy pleasures are all the more enhanced and sustained thanks to its assembled ensemble cast. Leading this exemplary cast are HAIRSPRAY vets Arci, Vogt, and Pearl—all of whom fit so snuggly into their roles, that they almost feel so lived-in and second nature.
Vogt's every nuance is just marvelous, no doubt shaped by his experience with the role on Broadway and in the Vegas sit-down. Meanwhile, Vogt's other half, the very funny Pearl makes a compelling case convincing audiences that his Wilbur is the best husband and dad in the (fictional musical theater) world. Together, Vogt and Pearl have a wonderfully beguiling rapport, which reaches its summit during their irresistible duet on "(You're) Timeless To Me"—allowing both actors some leeway for planned/unplanned improv to the utter delight of the audience.
And like Pearl, Stewart and Hall reprise the very same roles they previously played at Musical Theatre West's own terrific production a year ago. Hall, for his part, continues to be an envious triple-threat performer, wowing everyone with his dance moves and slick R&B/Pop riffs with every appearance. And Stewart proves to be this show's not-so-secret weapon, particularly in her perfectly sung, gospel-tinged 11 o'clock number "I Know Where I've Been." If her rendition fails to shake you to your soul's core—as it did for me last year and as it did again this time—then perhaps you best check yourself for a pulse. She's absolutely that good with the song.
Another HAIRSPRAY vet, Stanfield—who appeared on this past June's Tony Awards telecast via satellite as Link Larkin on the Royal Carribean Cruise Line edition of the musical—also proves to be a charming standout. An uncanny, younger-looking doppelgänger of current Hollywood "It Boy" Jayson Blair (The New Normal, American Horror Story), Stanfield will make many ladies (and, yep, even a few boys) swoon at his matinee-idol good looks, effortless smoldering, and sweet, croony voice. In addition, it's hard to believe Simmons hasn't acted in HAIRSPRAY before judging from how awesomely she slips into Tracy's best friend role Penny (though, nothing against the actress, but the lovable role is pretty much tailor-made to be a scene-stealer, armed with some of the funniest facial tics and one-liners in the whole show).
Also deserving kudos are Van Velzer and Thomas as the deliciously mean-girl mom-and-daughter duo; J. Patrick Lundquist as pro-integration host Corny Collins; Bonnie Kovar and Danny Stiles as various adults throughout the show (don't miss Kovar's scene-stealing dual roles as the P.E. Coach and Penny's mother—both unexpected highlights); and Marliss Amiea, Carey Rebecca Brown, and Salisha Thomas as the harmoniously heaven-sent Dynamites. Now these girls can saaang.
And lastly, Arci, once again coiffed as the revolutionary, ahead-of-her-time Tracy is still just remarkable. Even while going on stage with what looks to be a leg injury (she wore a visible off-color wrap around her knee during the opening night performance), she performs Tracy as if she really is Tracy. Likable in both spirit and singing voice—boldly adding some really nice vocal riffs to spice up many of her numbers—Arci achieves in being one of the few actresses that have been memorable for playing the role. Truly outstanding work.
If there's anything to really gripe about here—and, boy, you have to really dig deep to find it—is that 3DT's shows at the Plummer still seem to always get a bit hampered by minor technical flubs, mostly involving the microphones going in and out at the most inopportune times. In addition, the sound mix seems to favor the volume of the band, as great-sounding as they are. While certainly not a hindrance to the overall enjoyment of their productions here, both sometimes get distracting with frequency.