BWW Reviews: HAIRSPRAY Was Ahead of the Rest this Week

Reviewed Saturday 16th August 2014

The Adelaide Youth Theatre presented its latest work, Hairspray, for a short season at the ARTS Theatre in Adelaide. As usual, the cast was filled with many talented and enthusiastic young people, and a few experienced and more mature performers in select roles. The final night performance was packed with people of all ages, who expressed their enjoyment with regular outbursts of either laughter or applause.

The story is simple. A teenager, Tracy Turnblad, wants to become a dancer on a television show, The Corny Collins Show, but is mocked by the cast member, who are also her schoolmates, for not looking the way that society at the time thought that a teenaged dancer should look. She meets a group from the wrong side of the colour bar and they teach her some moves. Eventually, she not only gets the job, and starts an integration movement at the same time, to the chagrin of a few prejudiced individuals, and she even enters the race to become Miss Teen Hairspray.

Such is the quantity of young talent in Adelaide, and the reputation of this group to attract them, the production had two complete casts, alternating each night but, on the final night, there were some from each cast working together. Serena Martino-Williams is a power packed Tracy, giving her all to the role in a sensational performance that sets a very high level for the entire production. She bursts onto the stage and doesn't let up for a second, still being solidly in the role of Tracy until the end of the bows. Fortunately, the whole cast are also top notch performers, and as full of energy and enthusiasm as she is.

Kimberley Jones is hilarious as her friend and confidant, the shy and bookish Penny Pingleton, in whom Tracy confides, telling of her dreams, including her crush on Link Larkin, the lead dancer on the television show. Penny begins by living vicariously through Tracy but, as time goes by, she develops dreams and ambitions of her own. Jones is wonderful in the consistency of her characterisation so that, when she makes her transition, the audience cheer and applause, fit to burst.

The not overly bright Link is played by Jack Conroy, giving us the appearance one of those "all-American" boys who gets ahead on football scholarships rather than on academic abilities. They are in all of the American college films, tall, well-built, handsome guys, surrounded by all of the best looking girls, probably going out with the head cheerleader, and as shallow as they come, so accustomed to adoration that they are bewildered when they do not get it. Conroy does a great job of this "Shallow Hal" but, finding himself falling for Tracy over Amber, the lead female dancer on the show, and then being confronted with a choice between playing safe for his own sake, and siding with Tracy to condemn racial discrimination, his initial faltering turns to an inner strength and sense of right and wrong, which changes him into a fine human being. Conroy shows this growth in his character with great skill.

Penny develops a crush on Seaweed J. Stubbs, the boy who taught Tracy some dance moves that helped her get a spot on the show, and he returns her feelings. Josh Angleles plays Seaweed with all of the dignity and disdain for prejudice that you would expect from a proud African American, along with an immense love of music and dance passed on from his mother, a DJ who also runs a record store where young people hang out and listen to the newest hits. He is not just a dancing star, but a fine actor, presenting a very believable and three-dimensional character.

This production is a real family affair as Seaweed's stage mother, Motormouth Maybelle, is played by his older sister, Marie Angeles, and his stage little sister, Little Inez, is played by his real younger sister, Allycia Angeles. Marie Angeles plays a strong and supportive mother with plenty of conviction but, when she opens her mouth to sing, an incredible voice bursts forth that left everybody wanting more and more. There is a singing career here just waiting to take off. Allyicia Angeles, however, is another kettle of fish entirely. At only nine years of age she has more stage presence and charisma than some big name performers that I could mention. Whenever she walks onto the stage, one cannot help but be aware of her presence, before she does a thing. The she sings, dances, and acts, likes a seasoned professional. Make a note of that name because you'll be hearing a lot of it over the coming years, along with her brother and her sister.

Penny's controlling and overbearing mother, Prudy, who eventually comes around and supports Penny, is played by Grace Monaghan, delightful as a religion obsessed control freak who is far more worried about what other people think that her own daughter's wellbeing. Monaghan gets good value out of her character with a continual stream of laughs all night, and then garners the sympathy of the audience when Prudy drops her veneer and becomes the loving and supportive mother, when Penny and Seaweed announce their love for one another.

The villain of the piece is Velma von Tussle, producer of the Corny Collins Show and mother of Amber, the obnoxious member of the cast who berates Tracy at every opportunity. Velma is played by Tayla Prime and Amber by Sascha Czuchwicki as a nice double act, Prime spitting venom in all directions and ordering everybody about, playing the "producer" card to get her own way, and expressing barely restrained fury when frustrated, while Czuchwicki gives us the spoiled brat who expects to get everything that she wants, and is totally unequipped to cope when things go against her, starting with the loss of Link to Tracy, and Tracy getting a place on the show. They both know well enough to treat these as straight roles, and the laughs flow feely. Too many people play these evil types of character strictly for laughs and wonder why they got none. These two created characters as credible people, and that is always what works.

Jamie Hornsby, in drag, but played with sensitivity, not for cheap laughs, portrays Tracy's housebound mother, Edna, who has been too ashamed to go out for years because of her increased weight, and Brendan Cooney plays her father, Wilbur, owner of the Har-De-Har Hut joke shop and still as deeply in love with Edna as the day that they married, and very supportive of Tracy. So many plays have dysfunctional families at their core, but this trio are exactly the opposite. Hornsby and Cooney are brilliant together, showing enormous rapport, and an enormous understanding of their characters, and how to play them for the very best effect.

Mark Stefanoff is sensational as Corny Collins but, of course, that is what one would expects from a seasoned song and dance man and star of numerous production around Adelaide. He plays this show business personality with all of the confidence and larger than life personality that the character needs, engaging the audience and gaining more fans.

Behind all this is Director, David Gauchi, who toured as Edna with a professional production, so what better choice could the company have had? All of that experience gave him the knowledge and insight that he used to cast the two productions and bring them to the level of excellence to which we were treated. Much credit goes to him.

The music was in the hands of Musical Director, Emma Knights, who assembled a very fine small group of musicians, who were spot on all night, and drew forth superb performances from all of the soloists and the chorus. The show is about dance, of course, and the Choreographer, Nina Richards, has also come up with some very effective dance moves.

David Gauchi's minimalist set works in with the colourful projections by Greg Adams and well planned lighting by Rodney Bates, with costume coordinators, Tash Fennell and Michelle Dobie, adding yet more brightness to the show.

Apart from a few dodgy moments with microphone cueing and levels, this was another high flying work from this always impressive group and their young performers. Although this production closed on the night that I attended, there are others coming up soon, so keep an eye on the web site here.

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From This Author Barry Lenny


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