BWW Review: HAIRSPRAY at Theatre Harrisburg
Hairspray originally opened on Broadway in 2002. The stage musical by Marc Shaiman, Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan, and Scott Whittman, is based on the 1988 film written and directed by John Waters. The show takes place in 1962 in Baltimore and follows the story of teenager Tracy Turnblad. In many ways, Tracy is a typical teenager-longing for fame, wanting to be accepted, falling in love. But Hairspray is about more than teenage drama. It explores racism, segregation, integration, fat shaming, standards of beauty, and controversial relationships. Theatre Harrisburg's Hairspray opened at the Whitaker Center on April 26, 2018.
While "Good Morning Baltimore" was a little lackluster for the opening number, Zoey Bright as Tracy Turnblad captivated the audience with her fantastic vocals and brilliant smile. Once the cast shook off their opening night nerves, they delivered an energetic, passionate, uplifting performance. The costumes, hair, and set evoke the fashion and style of the 1960s beautifully.
Since part of the storyline follows Tracy's dream of singing and dancing on the Corny Collin Show, there is a great deal of dancing in the performance. I have seen productions of Hairspray where the choreography looked needlessly chaotic. But Brian Massey's choreography is designed and staged to look precise and clean, and it is extremely well-executed by the cast.
Speaking of the cast, there are so many highlights, it's difficult to mention all of them. Zoey Bright's Tracy Turnblad is wonderfully sincere-the audience is completely drawn in by her enthusiasm for following her dreams and her fervor for doing what is right. She particularly shines in the scenes with Kevin L. Biddle, who plays her mother Edna, and Davina Lopez, who portrays Motormouth Maybelle. One of the best moments between Edna and Tracy is "Welcome to the 60s", where Tracy convinces Edna to step out of her comfort zone and to see herself as beautiful. They deliver a challenge to traditional standards of beauty wrapped up in a 60s style pop song complete with back-up singers (the Dynamites are truly dynamite in their vocals in this song). When Motormouth Maybelle agrees to Tracy's plan to stand up against racism and segregation, the determination and hope that Tracy feels is palpable.
Kelley Hertzler as Penny Lou Pingleton (Tracy's best friend) is hysterical. Her Penny has a more sarcastic edge than I'm used to seeing in the character, but it adds a new dimension to the awkward, off-kilter Penny that really works. When Penny meets and falls in love with Seaweed (played by Amir Simmons), she discovers a new strength and confidence that really comes through in Hertzler's acting. The audience will laugh at Penny's awkward dancing, tense relationship with her mother, and uniquely blunt way of putting things. Then they will find themselves cheering her on as she stands up to her mom, learns who she is, and stands up for what she believes. Not only is Hertzler a superb actress, but her voice is phenomenal. While there were many stellar moments for Penny, her duet with Seaweed on "Without Love" was one of the very best.
Kevin L. Biddle as Edna and Marc Lubbers as Wilbur are simultaneously adorable and funny. They play off one another with the give and take of an actual couple, supporting one another and making one another laugh.
Alec Brashear presents one of the best Corny Collins portrayals I've ever seen. While the role can often be played over the top cheesy, Brashear gives us a Corny Collins who seems to genuinely care about more than just his show. When he says he wants kids on the show who look like the kids who watch the show, the audience can't help but believe him and cheer him on as he strives to update the show regardless of the controversy it might cause. Brashear's spot-on acting is matched by his voice, which is perfect for "The Nicest Kids in Town".
Aubrey Krepps and Kalina Jenkins have the task of acting the parts of Velma and Amber Von Tussle. They masterfully bring to life these self-absorbed, prejudiced, power-hungry women so well that audience members may experience a very real feeling of dislike for them.
Colin York as the dreamy teen heartthrob Link Larkin manages to find a new depth in the character that I have seldom seen in other productions of Hairspray. His facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice combine beautifully to show that Link is more than just a good-looking guy who has a great voice and can dance. Even when he is playing the cool guy, the audience can feel that there is more to him. This depth lends more credibility to the scenes where Link begins to stand up for others and to realize that he cares about more than just himself and his career.
Seaweed J. Stubbs has long been one of my favorite characters in the show, and Amir Simmons delivers an outstanding performance in the role. His vocals are clear, precise, and emotional and his dancing is fantastic. Simmons lights up the stage in every scene he's in. "Run and Tell That" and "Without Love" showcase his talent beautifully and leave the audience with a lasting impression. Davina Lopez does not disappoint as Seaweed's mother Motormouth Maybelle. "I Know Where I've Been" is guaranteed to give the audience chills.
Everyone in the cast, crew, and orchestra work together to create a special experience for the audience. They do not shy away from the difficult themes in the show but invite the audience to explore them and to think about how we still struggle with the same stereotypes, biases, and prejudices that were being challenged in the early 60s. The final scene of the show is uplifting, beautiful, and a challenge to each of us to love ourselves as we are, to accept others for who they are, and to stand up for what's right even when it's not convenient or profitable.
This is a show you will not want to miss. Catch Theatre Harrisburg's production of Hairspray at the Whitaker Center now through May 6th. Visit www.theatreharrisburg.com for tickets.