BWW Reviews: Playhouse on the Square Teases Its Beehives in HAIRSPRAY
Playhouse on the Square Teases Its Beehives in HAIRSPRAY
When Playhouse on the Square first showcased the musical version of the giddy John Waters' romp HAIRSPRAY a few seasons back, terpsichorean dynamo Courtney Oliver (as "Tracy Turnblad") and theatre veteran Ken Zimmerman ("Miss Edna") left the stage each night with clamorous standing ovations for them and their colorful cohorts. I saw it more than once; it was the kind of theatrical experience that not only made you want to see it repeatedly, but one to which you longed to introduce others. I was thrilled to learn not only that HAIRSPRAY would return to end the current season at Playhouse, but that it would also reunite most of the original cast - and would be directed by the ever reliable Dave Landis.
I first encountered HAIRSPRAY in Waters' original film, with Ricki Lake, Divine, Jerry Stiller, Deborah Harry, and others; and I loved the use of one hit "wonders" which over the years I had already collected on vinyl. I remember recommending it to a friend. With Waters' films, you either "get it" or you don't; my friend most definitely didn't "get it." However, I relished the inherent tackiness, leering glee, and inventiveness of the film; it did not deter from the underlying "sweetness" and insistence on acceptance so integral to Waters' work. The musical is a smile-inducing love letter to the original. The book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan adheres closely to its source, and the music and lyrics of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are evidence that the composers understood well the Waters spirit.
Truth to tell, the film version of the musical (with a woefully miscast John Travolta) was a disappointment. Much better is a version like this, with the "whirling dervish" talents of Ms. Oliver, as insistently entertaining as ever, and the enjoyably "drag" performance of Mr. Zimmerman (he was an equally marvelous "Lady Bracknell" in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST). I also like Waters' alternate universe: Imperfect protagonists whose idiosyncrasies are balanced by a sweet humanity. His antagonists ("Amber" and her perfectly horrible mother) are usually considered "mainstream," but are microcosms of what needs to be changed in society. Underlying all the absurd caricatures and surface silliness are important lessons about tolerance and acceptance. If, in MARY POPPINS, "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," this particular spoonful has been laced with some chemical additive from the sixties.
The stingers in the beehives here belong to the mean-spirited "Velma Von Tussle" (a wicked reprisal by Carla McDonald) and her lacquered junior version "Amber" (the talented Cassie Thompson). When the elder Von Tussle, producer of THE CORNY COLLINS SHOW, sings of her glory days as Miss "Baltimore Crabs," she stakes out the boundaries of her all-vanilla domain; in segregationist 1962 Baltimore, chocolate is verboten. Enter Tracy and her fellow outcasts, and there's just no stopping the surge. Sent first to detention and then, most damning, to "Special Ed," Tracy discovers kindred spirits (and talents) in the form of her isolated black classmates. (In the early years of my teaching career, I found that recently integrated schools would create classes according to "ability" and that segregation could still exist within an integrated setting. Waters evidently experienced this, too.) One of those classmates, "Seaweed" (Napoleon Douglas), is the son of "Motormouth Maybelle," the popular black DJ, and a visit to "the dark side" results in a moment of social epiphany for Tracy, her gawky friend "Penny," Miss Edna, and the Prince Charming of the piece, "Link Larkin." When the fabulous Arthella Williams' "Maybelle" brings down the house with the show's one genuinely serious song "I Know Where I've Been," the audience is already being prepped for a standing ovation.
The performers here are all marvelous -- Jordan Nichols' "Link," as the "insider" who joins the "outsiders," is a perfect partner for Miss Oliver; Michael Detroit is the sweetly devoted "Wilbur Turnblad"; Caroline Simpson is a delightfully "nerdy" "Penny"; David Foster, a sympathetic, Dick Clark-ish "Corny." I could go on. They not only have the personalities and voices to make their individual and collective numbers memorable, but they have been put through their paces by choreographers Travis Bradley and Jordan Nichols, based on the 2010 movements of Nichols and Shorey Walker. Rebecca Powell's costumes are clever and brightl, and scenic designer Jimmy Humphries has created an ingenious playground as the backdrop. Reviews or not, this proven enterprise is already on its way to being summer's tastiest theatrical treat: Performances are already being sold out. Through July 13. Photo courtesy of Playhouse on the Square.