BWW Review: HAIRSPRAY Douses the Skylight Music Theatre with Energy & Optimism
Rat that hair, lace those groovin' shoes, and get ready for the rhythm of a brand new day. The Skylight's musical Hairspray is Milwaukee's bigger, bolder, bowl-you-over show for the holidays, celebrating diversity of all kinds, from the color of your skin to the inches in your waistline. Set in the 60s, it's the upbeat story of plucky and plump Tracy Turnblad, a teenager who just wants a shot at the spotlight and for people to see past her above-average size.
Once discovered, Tracy winds up a quick sensation on the Corny Collins Show, an American Bandstand-esque variety program. But it's not just her killer moves that make big waves. Tracy also takes a spin on her activist training wheels, standing up for the rights and talents of her fellow black Corny Collins cast members, who are featured on TV just once a month on Negro Day. Hairspray dares to dream that dancing can secure diversity, and that the pudgy girl can win the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray and snag the dreamy crooner to boot. It's unabashedly idealistic and optimistic - a look at what great strides we might make if we put down our prejudices and picked up our dancing shoes.
As the Skylight's Tracy Turnblad, Maisie Rose anchors the show from her first "Oh-oh-oh!" with a clear, pitch-perfect voice and spunky attitude. She's the kind of bright and bubbly Tracy that audiences are eager to root for. As pigtailed sidekick Penny Pingleton, Ann Delaney is adorably gawky, nervous, and naive. Tracy and Penny's nemesis, blond bombshell Amber Von Tussle, is hilariously embodied by Skylight alum, Amber Smith. Slightly shrill and majorly funny, Smith brings the type of non-threatening mean girl audiences love to hate. It's a blast to see these three side-by-side in "Mama I'm a Big Girl Now" - a song that didn't make it into the 2007 movie version of Hairspray.
As Amber's beau and Tracy's daydream, Colin Schreier's Link Larkin croons ever-so-sweetly and carries off all the smoothness required of a bobby soxer's crush. His voice is especially easy on the ears in the slow jam "It Takes Two" - a number guaranteed to stir up anyone's inner school girl. While Link elicits sighs, his counterpart and star of Negro Day, Seaweed J. Stubbs, played by the fantastic Gilbert Domally, delivers high energy, crazy-slick dance moves, and a sizzle that balances Link's cool. Domally more than nails the fan favorite "Run and Tell That."
Quick shout out to twelve-year-old Terynn Erby-Walker as Seaweed's sister, Little Inez. To see her on the Cabot Theatre stage is to glimpse a star in the making. From vocals and dancing to overall poise and presence, Erby-Walker is one to watch.
Stand-out performances aren't limited to Hairspray's younger characters; Doug Clemons charms as Corny Collins and Rick Pendzich takes his few bit parts and makes them unforgettably funny. Tracy's parents, played by Tommy Novak and David Flores, are an utterly delightful duo. Big and brawny Edna is at her best when Novak leans into his character's more abrasive qualities for big laughs. Flores' Wilbur makes for a darling counterpart, and you can't help but smile at the Act Two duet, "You're Timeless To Me." It's a sweet little ditty that earns an immediate mini reprise.
It's performances like these that make Act Two of Hairspray especially strong. While, at times, some disparity is felt in Act One, between the earnest youth ensemble and the superstar professionals, Act Two really brings it home and shows the entire cast in their best light. For starters: Huge thanks to Bethany Thomas and the ensemble who backed her in "I Know Where I've Been." This anthem of black suppression and hope is performed by Seaweed's mother, Motormouth Maybelle, played by Thomas. It comes as Tracy and her newfound friends prepare to fight against segregation, and it's one of the only truly somber moments in all of Hairspray.
Maybe it was Thomas' soulful, thundering vocals, her commanding presence, or the entire ensemble's emotional performance - were those real tears from young Erby-Walker, or just really good acting? Whatever the formula, "I Know Where I've Been" resulted in something incredibly powerful - a moment that will no doubt reign among my top in Milwaukee theater this season. I would gladly have given up another 10 or 20 seconds of applause. I hope, going forward, the Skylight will allow this deeply moving song a Little Room to breathe, giving the audience a few more seconds to both sound their praise and collect themselves before pivoting back to Miss Teenage Hairspray.
The finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat" takes us out on a crazy-high note, thanks in large part to immersive staging and undeniable energy from the entire cast. That energy and inventive choreography is on display throughout the show: in the clever dream sequence "I Can Hear The Bells," in a slow-motion dodgeball scene, and in a jailbird tap dance, just to name a few. Hairspray has no shortage of fun, from start to finish - and like I said, oh what a finish! Everyone from Tracy to her parents to the Von Tussles get to, as the song says, "shake their fanny muscles." To top it off, they bring the celebration into the aisles, showering the scene with confetti and relentless optimism. It's a musical theater high that, much like the Hairspray beat, you simply can't stop.
Photo credit: Ross Zentner