BWW Reviews: Summer Theatre of New Canaan Rocks with HAIRSPRAY

By: Jul. 06, 2014
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Summer Theatre of New Canaan rocks the summer months with the powerhouse, feel-good musical, Hairspray. This wonderful production runs through August 3rd outside of New Canaan High School. But don't let the setting fool you. Despite the fact that this show is presented in a unique, all-weather, open-air tent, it is no small, community production. For the price of admission, you are treated to a full-fledged Broadway quality performance that rivals and, in some cases, surpasses many older, well-established, year-round theaters. Audiences of all ages will enjoy this upbeat show featuring a musical score reminiscent of the heyday of early 1960's rock & roll and its hopeful message of inclusion, idealism, and fearlessness in the face of prejudice.

Based on the 1988 John Waters film, the musical Hairspray features an award-winning book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. It tells the story of the attempts at integrating "The Corny Collins Show," a teenage television dance show based on Baltimore's "Buddy Deane Show." Like its real-life counterpart, "The Corny Collins Show" features a roster of teenage kids who become stars through their introduction of new dances like "The Madison" and their personal on-air romances.

Our musical heroine, the overweight Tracy Turnblad, finds that it's not easy to fit into the mold of these 'nice, white kids' from Baltimore, and she soon feels the sting of rejection. Tracy commiserates with her African American friends and dance inspirations who also cannot gain equal footing on the Corny Collins dance floor. But theirs is no pity party and our plucky heroine cannot be kept down. Through a series of naive blunders, an unlikely romance with a teen heartthrob, and outright law-breaking defiance, Tracy wins her way to making all of her (and her friends') dreams come true.

The Broadway musical Hairspray won several Tony and Drama Desk Awards. Summer Theatre of New Canaan's production deserves as many accolades for its exceptional production team and stellar cast. The inspired direction of Allegra Libonati, set design by Julia Noulin-Mérat and lighting by Daniel Chapman combine with the rock & roll sounds of an outstanding orchestra under the musical direction of David Hancock Turner to transport us back to the sights and sounds of early 1960's life. Bobbie Cliffton Zlotnick deserves special recognition for the ratted and teased wigs and beehives that give rise to the towering hairstyles that inspired the show's title. The colorfully flashy and nostalgically accurate costumes by Orli Nativ complete the look for that unmistakable 60's style.

Of course, a musical about a dance show would not be complete without some killer dance moves, and choreographer Doug Shankman provides those. Mr. Shankman samples all of the dance styles of the 60's. We get a glimpse of everything, from innocuous line dances like "The Madison" and staid couples dancing for the Corny Collins show, to the down and dirty, soulful moves of a platter party on the wrong side of town, and the gyrating hips of a teen idol. We even get a small tap number in a jail cell and a smooth soft shoe number by Tracy's unlikely, but oh-so-in love parents. The entire cast executes these dance moves and all of the songs perfectly. The performances are so authentic and believable that the show never loses its early 60's vibe.

The heart and soul of the show belong to the perfectly cast featured actors. Rebecca Spigelman shines as the buoyantly bubbly teen Tracy Turnblad, who never loses sight of her dreams despite the negativity and obstacles that others want to impose on her. Nick Pankuch also delivers a punch as the local teen idol Link Larkin, whose budding romance with the overweight and socially conscious Tracy adds a depth of character to his dreamy good looks.

Sharon Malane is hilarious as Tracy's best friend Penny. She is not the sharpest pencil in the box but absolutely adorable as she goes through her transformation from overprotected schoolgirl to "checkerboard chick." De'Sean Dooley is the perfect picture of 'cool' as Penny's love interest, Seaweed J. Stubbs, the dancer extraordinaire with the smooth moves on and off the dance floor. Brittany Nicholas adds just the right touch of sassy commentary as Seaweed's younger sister Inez, a young girl impatient to have a chance at the spotlight.

Jodi Stevens and Caroline Lellouche are splendid as the uptight Von Tussle's, the mother/daughter duo who are not above cheating, putting down, or blatantly discriminating against anyone who does not fit into their blond, perfect little world. Andrew J. Mauney is at once charming and determined as Corny Collins, the television star with his finger on the pulse of America, itching for the New Frontier.

Standout performances include A'lisa Miles as Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed's mother and sometimes host of "The Corny Collins Show" on what is patronizingly called "Negro Day." She embodies the mom trying to protect and guide her children through the dangerous waters of 1960's segregation, while still clinging to the hope for change. Her soulful rendition of the gospel inspired song, "I Know Where I've Been" is a showstopper.

Other standouts are Greg London and Nick Reynolds as Tracy's parents, Edna and Wilbur Turnblad. Performing in drag, Mr. London is sublime as the full-figured, self-conscious, protective and supportive Edna. He reminds me of the late Divine who originated the role in the 1988 movie; she is exceptionally feminine, but able to access a deep masculine voice when protecting her daughter. Mr. Reynolds plays Edna's well-suited spouse Wilbur, diminutive compared to Edna's girth, but possessing the greatest love and support for his wife and his daughter. Mr. London and Mr. Reynolds are totally believable as a couple and their charming rendition of the song, "You're Timeless to Me" is another high point in the show.

Special mention goes out to KeLeen Snowgren and Brian Silliman for playing a variety of adult authority figures throughout the show. I applaud their versatility in morphing into such distinct and delightfully funny characters.

Hairspray is a joyous celebration of love, acceptance, and equality. It is sure to lift your spirits and put a smile on your face as you walk out of the theater. The final number, "You Can't Stop the Beat", could be a rallying cry for anyone wishing to be an agent of progress in our troubled times. And, in true 60's form, "It's got a good beat and it's easy to dance to."

Hairspray runs through August 3rd at Summer Theatre of New Canaan. Call 203-966-4634 or visit Summer Theatre of New Canaan for tickets.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Spigelman as Tracy Turnblad in Summer Theatre of New Canaan's production of Hairspray through August 3rd.


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