BWW Review: TEMAN's HAIRSPRAY is Big, Blustery, and Beautiful
After the artful, intimate INTO THE WOODS last year, TEMAN (Teater Musikal Nusantara) is back with the bombastic and bodacious HAIRSPRAY. Directed by Broadway's Brandon Bieber, the glam production was worthy of Broadway barring noticeable technical issues.
HAIRSPRAY tells the story of one Tracy Turnblad (Venytha Yoshiantini), a big girl living in 1960s Baltimore with a similarly big dream of becoming a star in the local dance TV show. The Corny Collins Show, as it's called, is hosted by the titular showman Corny Collins (Gusty Pratama) and features the teenage heartthrob and Tracy's dream sweetheart Link Larkin (Morgan Oey).
When Tracy comes to audition, accompanied by her peppy best friend Penny (Putri Indam Kamila), she faces pushback from the discriminatory producer Velma von Tussle (Lea Simanjuntak) and her bratty daughter Amber (Andrea Miranda), the latter of whom also vies for Link's attention.
At school, she learns how to dance from a group of black students, particularly from the too-hip-for-school Seaweed (Damien Jonathans). He introduces her to the black community, including his mother, the host for Corny Collins' 'Negro Days', Motormouth Maybelle (Tina Simanjuntak), as well as his sister Little Inez (Ayasha Davierra) who also longs to dance on TV.
It is here that Tracy truly learns about the segregation dividing Baltimore and vows to end it. Her parents, the housewife Edna (Peter Ong) and joke shop entrepreneur Wilbur (Renno Krisna), were initially wary of the danger, but by the end they help Tracy fulfill her dream.
TEMAN's vision, as stated in the luxurious programme, is to revolutionize musical theatre industry in Indonesia. As their first big musical, TEMAN's HAIRSPRAY sets out to accomplish just that from the very first scene.
Taking residence at the spacious 1,157-seater Ciputra Artpreneur theater, TEMAN can afford to utilize grander, Broadway-influenced sets. The curtain opens to Tracy greeting the misfits of Baltimore in front of a city block set utilizing forced perspective and delightfully rendered brick and mortar store facade. As the ensemble joins Tracy and brings the city to life, it really does feel like watching a Broadway show: astounding talents supported by professional production design and orchestra (led by music director Ivan Tangkulung).
But it is also from the very beginning that a perpetual problem rears its head: sound engineering.
Tracy was quite hard to hear due to the sound balancing issue; the same issue would also plague many other characters. Sometimes a character's voice would sound flighty or distant; other times, one character's lines would overpower all other sounds.
However, it is also here that the professionalism and experience of the cast were truly tested and they performed admirably; none of the cast was thrown off their groove and they pushed through, just like Tracy herself in the face of rejection. Some cast had better projection than others, carrying their voice despite the uncooperative mics.
As the leading lady, Venytha impressed. Though she had plenty of stage experience in Singapore, HAIRSPRAY was her debut on an Indonesian stage. Her dancing was faultless and brimming with energy; her singing was enjoyable, though the iconic Tracy affectation and relatively unchallenging songs held her from truly showing off the full extent of her vocal ability; however, where she truly shined was her character performance.
Venytha's Tracy walked, talked, and danced with an uplifting teenage perkiness. And the details she worked into her expressions were just so fun to watch to the point it might lead to one missing the rest of the stage. Audience in the front rows should count themselves lucky, as they can enjoy not only the whole entourage of people and stage elements on stage but also the microexpressions Venytha (and other actors) pull off.
If there's one aspect to (admittedly) nitpick about her performance, it is the fact that Venytha is a very polished musical actress; the role of Tracy Turnblad, with her emotional journey, is one of those roles that could be richer with a dash of vulnerability. On the flip side, should she take a role in a future production that would allow her to fully put her musical capability front and center, it would be one not to miss.
The cast, chosen from both personal approach and an open audition process, was stellar, with so many stand-outs.
Putri as Penny was an early scene stealer, her wide-eyed and endearing words of encouragement earned her the majority of the first act's laughs. Her transformation towards the end of the show was satisfying, though a more aggressive tone might spice it up even more.
Lea Simanjuntak was perhaps the cast who enjoyed her role the most, rightfully basking in the villainous hamminess of Miss Baltimore Crabs and inviting the audience to applaud Velma's ego (which we happily did). She was the character you love to hate. Lea had previously stated in the first press conference that she looked forward to let loose as Velma and it shows.
Andrea Miranda, playing the coquettish Amber, was likewise a fun villainess. Try to see the mother-daughter's antics in the last scene. It is such a great touch to have them flabbergasted in the background at the anthem of integration.
Singer-actor Gusty Pratama was the right pick to play Corny Collins. He was slick and never lost that showman sheen to his smile. However, his diction could use some more work for clarity.
Playing Edna (a role that's traditionally played by a man) was Singapore-based Peter Ong. Though this comedic role could easily be played overdone, Peter's turn was impressive as his Edna was so genuine -- a housewife that wants the best for her family. He gave the role a lot of heart while still bringing the laughs.
Playing opposite him was Renno Krisha, a mainstay of the prestigious Batavia Madrigal Singers. He made the perfect couple to Peter's Edna. Though Wilbur had little stage time, he came across as charming, loving, and more than a bit goofy. It's easy to agree with them when Edna and Wilbur call each other timeless.
As for the colored characters, it was a bit iffy whenever the show mentioned their blackness (which was often) since the cast were all Asians. Dissection of the merit of producing a show about racial tension with a homogenous cast deserves its own article, but the portrayals were quite respectful.
Still, individually, the darker side of Baltimore were unquestionably commendable. Ayasha Davierra truly impressed as Little Inez in what I consider the biggest surprise of the show. Her singing was powerful and her dance moves were on par with her older costars.
Damien Jonathan's Seaweed hit all the right notes with his effortless cool vibe. He was lithe and relaxed and the perfect counterpart to Penny's more uptight upbringing.
Motormouth Maybelle is a highly prized role; she got both impactful and boppy songs and serves as the story's purveyor of worldly wisdom. Tina Simanjuntak was a tour de force in the role, delivering on every aspect. She had such immense charisma and the voice to match as well. Watching her performance was like getting a warm embrace and a pep talk from one's own mother. She deserved every raucous applause.
And, finally, Morgan Oey as Link Larkin. The casting of a non-theater celebrity in musicals always risks being seen as stunt casting; it can't be denied that there are people who would watch HAIRSPRAY just due to Morgan's pre-existing star power as a film actor and former pop band idol (as evidenced by the howls of recognition and excitement when Link first appeared).
After seeing Link's budding relationship with Tracy and his personal journey from ignorant TV star to an ally for integration, those stunt casting concerns can be laid to rest (much like Amber's dream of being with Link).
He played Link earnestly with plenty of charm. His acting might not be on the same level of theatrical distinction yet as some of his co-stars (understandable, considering his background as a movie and TV actor), but he definitely stood on his own merit as a performer. With more experience under his belt, Morgan could be a musical leading man mainstay, like an Indonesian Aaron Tveit.
Rounding up the cast, the ensemble were a treat. It was rare to see such an evenly talented chorus, with everyone dancing on time and singing on pitch. All of them are already experienced performers, many have shared stages with one another, and it's really apparent in the way they carry themselves with confidence.
While these Baltimoreons sashay to the catchy tunes by Marc Shaiman, the set design (by Ratna Odata) helped transport the audience to the 60s with colorful, often geometric set pieces worthy of Broadway. The design is somewhere between realistic and impressionistic, which fits well with the show itself. Personally, I really enjoyed Motormouth Maybelle's gigantic sign, made out of vinyl record-shaped circles with an LED light in the center of each one.
The props (by Ilona Sacharissa) were cleverly utilized, particularly the titular hairspray cans and the gigantic one at the last scene. In fact, the show might benefit from a few more props to liven up some of the sets even more.
As for the lighting design (Alberta Wileo), it shines most brightly when portraying the glitzy showbiz segments, with the dancing beams of color elevating the experience to another level. As a small note, however, the spotlights sometime fell slightly askew. Hopefully, with more time, the execution would be perfected for a more precise focus and mood.
The costumes (by Ursula Sekar Gayatri) were fitting for the musical, but really came together at the final scene, with the glamorous, glimmering outfits (although Maybelle's security guard disguise was too dubious). The accompanying big wigs were also really cute altogether, though the bangs on Tracy's last wig rather obscured her eyes and should be fixed so we could see her face better.
But what really sets the production apart from other local musicals, to me, was the way Brandon Bieber masterfully crafted the show. He (along with TEMAN's Creative Director, Venytha herself) knew how to present the many, many, crowd pleasing numbers. His choreography looked as fun to dance as it was to watch, making you move together to the beat. It should also be noted that his blocking was noticeably smart, moving the cast around and across in such a way to make the scenes always feel dynamic. And the way the numbers build up to its climax made it impossible not to applaud.
Unfortunately, the book (by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan) couldn't reach its full potential yet, with some witty lines falling flat. Sometimes this could be chalked up to the jokes' inherent Americanness, but other times also because of the sound mishaps making the actors unheard, or slightly off comedic timing. It did help that the show has subtitles in Indonesian on screen, a very welcome and under-promoted accessibility feature.
Overall, TEMAN's HAIRSPRAY does bring us to the cusp of a new era, much like Tracy. The glitz, glamor, and the commercially-refined charm of Broadway are all here. It just needs that extra push of technical quality to make the show complete. But it's only a matter of time now, like the whole ensemble sang together at the end: you can't stop the paradise we're dreaming of. You can't stop the beat!