BWW Reviews: HAIRSPRAY Keeps Allenberry Playhouse Held Firmly in Place
Let's just say it right up front: HAIRSPRAY, directed by Dan Dunn, is the best show Allenberry's had since CHICAGO last season. That being said, let's look at the show itself: based on Baltimore native and cult filmmaker John Waters' film of the same name, which became a classic immediately on release in 1988, it answered this reviewer's personal question of how the movie could actually be made into a musical sensibly, because it did so not just sensibly but almost perfectly. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman did the music and lyrics for a book by Marc O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and the 2002 show ran for 2,500 performances and copped eight Tonys.
And, as usual, the movie version of the musical failed to do the show justice (but was still better than the movie version of LES MISERABLES) - however, the movie is most people's introduction to the musical. Certain things about the movie, though, and most notably the ending, are very different than the stage version.
Allenberry's tribute to the 1960's, and to the defeat of its various injustices from racism to sexism to classism to looks-ism by the magical dancing feet and social consciousness of a young woman named Tracy Turnblad, is a cut above other Sixties-based shows that have closed out the summer at other theatres in the area. Not only is the show itself better than the competing shows have been, and not only have the production values been particularly high, but Allenberry's pulled out all the stops on bringing in the right talent for this show. It's rare to see a show at any theatre in the area this perfectly cast.
Tracy Turnblad, the heart and soul of the show, was played for the first part of this run by Katie Ladner, who makes the "big-boned", dance and hair-obsessed teenager both charmingly gawky and incredibly aware of the world around her. When her Tracy says she'd swim in an integrated pool, it's a "yes" that's been thought about.
Those who remember Baltimore television in the Sixties, and many Central Pennsylvania residents did get to watch it, will find this Corny Collins Show a familiar one; Baltimore may not have originated "Bandstand", but it certainly had its own dance beat, and it had Buddy Deane, on whom Corny (played here with a really authentic feeling by Calvin Malone) is based. And yes, just as on the Corny Collins show, you'd never know that the Madison wasn't originated in Baltimore (it really originated in Ohio) because it sure felt that way back then. Allenberry's production gets that feeling exactly. Corny's turn with the high school students in "Nicest Kids In Town" is a classic performance of a great, truly vicious little song about the period.
Tracy Turnblad could only be the product of remarkable parents. Edna Turnblad is played by male actors to continue in the tradition of the actor Divine, who played Edna in John Waters' original movie; here she's played by Robert Gadpaille, who's as fine an Edna as any, and certainly more believable in honoring Harris Glenn Milstead's/Divine's Edna than was John Travolta in the movie. Gadpaille's Edna, the laundress with dreams of being a fashion designer, has a baritone rumble and an amazingly light step while dancing, as well as plenty of sage advice for her would-be-star daughter. Edna's duet with Tracy's father, Wilbur, the joke shop owner (played by Jeremy Michael Lagunas, who's clearly having far too much fun with what's truly a delightful part) is absolutely first-rate.
Velma Von Tussle, the station president, and her daughter, dance queen Amber, are played by Casey Weems and Mary Lamb. Weems has had a great season at Allenberry, and while her absence will be felt, she leaves with a non-traditional but completely credible and delightful Velma, whose "Miss Baltimore Crabs" is quite definitely one of the highlights of the show (as is the ending, in which her Miss Baltimore Crabs crown is unveiled at last - and a marvelous piece of costume department work it was to find that giant vintage rhinestone hardshell, indeed). Lamb has played Amber before, elsewhere, and that experience shows.
Motormouth Maybelle, the African-American DJ and record shop owner who hosts Corny's "Negro Day" monthly, is Katrina McGraw, whose voice alone is worth the price of admission for this production. Her "I Know Where I've Been" could wake the dead, let alone sleepers, with the force of her righteous indignation at the racial inequality that plagued Baltimore at the time, and her "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful", with a little help from Edna, is a hilarious gem. Patrick Detloff, as the Ultra-Clutch Hairspray executive, is a minor but genuinely funny player; his character's willingness to integrate based on ratings, over Velma's dead body, is a cheerily cynical reminder of the actual motivations of most television.
This is one of the largest pit orchestras Allenberry has had so far this season, and like the cast, it's giving a brash, brassy, heartfelt performance.
The show isn't completely perfect. The sound is hampered by the size of the cast, and The Dynamites, the black female trio, has some audibility issues. The lighting, like the sound, goes dead in a few spots. And while most of the set is classic, there are a few problems; the Corny Collins Show sign, for example, should be far more prominent on the TV station's set. But it's still pretty darn great, and one of the best shows of the summer in Central Pennsylvania.
At Allenberry through September 8, and worth your being there. Call (717) 258-3211 or visit www.allenberry.com for tickets.
Photo courtesy of Allenberry Playhouse