Review: HAIRSPRAY at Connor Palace

HAIRSPRAY is at Connor Palace as part of the Huntington Broadway Series

By: Dec. 06, 2023
Review: HAIRSPRAY at Connor Palace
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The farcical, yet message-loaded HAIRSPRAY, is the type of musical that in a bad production falls flat, but in a good production the audience gets all-kinds of involved.

 I wish I could say that the touring version at Playhouse Square was one of the good ones, but with its languid first act yet dynamic second act, which left the audience dancing in the aisles, could only be called a partial success.

Let’s put this in perspective for CLE audiences. 

The Key Bank Broadway series presents fresh productions peopled by actors who usually have been in the Big Apple production of the show or have professional experience, are Equity members, and which has top-notch technical ingredients.  The shows tend to run, in each city on its itinerary, for 2 or 3 weeks.

The Huntington Featured Performance series, of which HAIRSPRAY is an offering, are short-stay productions, usually 3 or 4 days, often feature professional newbies, or performers past their prime, and are low-cost technical presentations.   They usually are a step-above local little theatre or school productions, but not of the quality of Broadway shows or the offerings of the Key Bank Series.

HAIRSPRAY, the stage musical, is based on the 1988 John Walters movie of the same name.  It has up-beat music by Marc Shaiman, encompassing lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, and a purposeful book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan.  It was a cry for integration in 1960s for segregated cities such as Baltimore. 

The story focuses on “zaftig” Tracey Turnblad, who has three desires in life:  dance on the “Corny Collin’s Show” (think Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”), have “every day be Negro day on that show,” and meet Link Larkin, the show’s “stud” male.

Tracey keeps getting sent to detention at school because of her well-sprayed huge hair (the Jackie O signature style of the era).  The detention room is populated by African Americans who expose the liberal-minded Tracy to “Black” dancing. 

After Tracy gets selected to be on the show, against the wishes of Velma von Tussle, the program’s multi-prejudiced producer, she launches a campaign to integrate the show.  

Of course, all hell breaks loose including picketing, a riot, a jail lockup, a jail breakout, white kids singing and dancing in 'Balmur’s all Black North side, the coming out of Tracy’s agoraphobic and plus-sized mother, love affairs between Link and Tracy as well as that of Penny, Tracy’s white best friend, and Seaweed, the son of Black DJ and vocalist, Motormouth Maybelle. 

The 2002 Broadway production won eight Tony Awards, ran over 2500 performances, and has had numerous foreign and community theatre productions.

The touring show’s opening act was slow-paced.  The cast seemed either over-whelmed by the script’s requirements, or were tired from their two or three nights in one town and quick get-away to their next performance site. 

Even the mediocre scenery presented problems as the show had to be stopped shortly before intermission because of an errant piece of scenery go onto the stage. 

Let’s not even discuss the bad wigs, overacting, volume issues or tinny-sounding electric music.

The cast and crew seemed to have had a pep-talk or a nap at intermission, because the second act was dynamic.

Caroline Eiseman, whose credits do not include any Broadway work, has the required chunky cheeks, biggish voice, and dancing feet, to create Tracy.

Greg Kalafatas (in drag), though quite adequate in the role, never really was totally endearing as Tracy’s mother.

Skyler Shields, who sings and dances well, was “kind of” okay at Link, but was missing the necessary stud-factor needed for the role.

Deidre Lang, Motormouth Maybelle, almost achieved the impossible deed of stopping the show with her wailing, infectious rendition of the gospel-rock “I Know Where I’ve Been.” 

Josiah Rogers, an Orange High School graduate, was a dancing dynamo as Seaweed, while Kaila Symone Crowder was delightful as the full-spirited Little Inez.

Song highlights were: “I Can Hear the Bells,” “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,”” Welcome to the ‘60s,”and “Big, Blonde & Beautiful.” 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  The touring production was quite adequate, but could have been so much more with more focused direction, better technical aspects and a stronger cast.  The opening night audience was on their feet at the end in spite of the performance and technical issues.

HAIRSPRAY is here through December 10, 2023. For tickets 216-241-6000 or go to playhousesquare.org  




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