BWW Reviews: DLU Theatre's HAIRSPRAY Delivers Exactly What You Want In Musical Theater

Who'd have ever thought that filmmaker John Waters - about whom the term "avant garde" seems lacking in its descriptive powers - could have spawned one of the most engaging and enormously entertaining works ever created for the musical theater with Hairspray?

Waters' original film of the same name marked his initial entry into filmdom's "mainstream" by presenting his uniquely off-kilter brand of comedy with the trenchant social commentary for which he's long been known - and the subsequent stage musical based on the film has earned all manner of accolades on Broadway and in the West End, and has now gone on to become the favorite of theater companies all over the world.

You can hardly swing a cat in Nashville without hitting someone in costume as Edna Turnblad or her dancing progeny Tracy, so popular has the show become with local theaterati. But, truth be told, if I never live to see another Hairspray, I can now die a happy man: Because I saw director/choreographer Justin Boccitto's exceptional, extraordinary and exhilarating take on the show, starring a phenomenal cast of Lipscomb University theatre students who so brilliantly bring the now-iconic characters of 1962 Baltimore to life with thorough commitment and so much energy you can't help but leave the theater with a spring in your step and a song in your heart.

Vibrant and colorful, expressive and energetic, this is the Hairspray you dream of witnessing (I am not ashamed to count the Mark O'Donnell/Thomas Meehan/Scott Wittman/Marc Shaiman show among my most beloved musical theater titles), with clever staging and the remarkable use of modern technology to present the story at its most flavorful period best. David Hardy's set design captures the early '60s era with creative panache, providing all sorts of wonderful multi-purpose uses for the playing area and the set, which is dominated by a video wall that takes audiences into the inner workings of a televised dance show of the time. It's as if American Bandstand and Mad Men got together and the result is Lipscomb University's Hairspray.

Costumed with a sense of period style by June Kingsbury, whose fashion sense  recreates the early 1960s milieu of the play's setting, the actors' assignments are made easier by the production's overall design aesthetic, evident in Hardy's atmospheric lighting design and his laudable set design which makes ideal use of the rather unwieldy physical trappings of Collins Alumni Auditorium on the LU campus.

The remarkable use of video technology (kudos to producer Mike Fernandez, video projections coordinator James Tyler Blankenship, special effects editor Nick Rau, camera operator Ryan Malone and director Boccitto and video operators Haleigh Ker and Allison Wood for their heroic efforts in realizing this spectacular vision for Hairspray), exemplified by the video wall and the live camera work that adds a sense of urgency and immediacy to the proceedings, vividly underscores the story being told onstage. With the fictitious Corny Collins Show providing the structure for much of the plotline, a great deal of the video work is inspired by television of that era, but by utilizing contemporary technical wizardry, the creative team is able to tell its oft-told tale with originality and imagination without overpowering the story's soulful heart.

Perhaps some of the most awe-inspiring work comes during the performance of "I Can Hear the Bells" in which Tracy Turnblad and the members of the ensemble give the song a fresh take with an affectionate tribute to the overhead camerawork made famous by The Jackie Gleason Show's weekly performance by The June Taylor Dancers (yes, I am old enough to remember that, however vaguely it may be). Most notably, Caleb Pritchett, Nick Hogan and Austin Hunt present Boccitto's clever choreography with effortless ease.

The cast's enthusiasm and zestful approach to the material is palpable from the very first moments - Tracy awakes to the first notes of "Good Morning, Baltimore" while the ensemble become the interesting characters who people her neighborhood - and that roller-coaster ride of perpetual motion and emotion that guarantees the time of your life continues throughout the show, concluding with what might be the very best performance of "You Can't Stop the Beat" that you've ever seen.  

Boccitto's command of the material, coupled with his expert choreography for the number and the full-throttle performance from the cast result in a show -closer that, quite frankly, leaves you begging for more! In between, you're treated to a veritable concert of musical theatre highlights that permanently plants a smile on your face or leaves you awestruck by the sheer power of its performance (Jessica Moore, as Motormouth Maybelle, brings the house down with her staggering rendition of "I Know Where I've Been," the number that elicited the night's loudest ovation, which still rings in my ears as I write).

Janet Holeman's outstanding work as vocal director for the entire ensemble is largely responsible for the amazing sound that issues forth from her actors, while conductor Steve Rhodes' orchestra produces a truly beautiful sound that is equal to the voices gathered onstage.

Whitney Vaughn, cast as the pert and peppy hairhopper, adds her own autograph to the list of actresses claiming stardom and their share of the spotlight as the endearing Tracy Turnblad. Vaughn tackles the role with gleeful abandon, singing her character's songs with the requisite self-assurance to create a believable Tracy and showing off her tremendous dancing abilities with great confidence. Vaughn's bright smile enlivens every scene she is in, ensuring that the audience is firmly on Tracy's side (although, truthfully, there's never any question of their loyalty straying from the girl with the towering bouffant) and she displays an unerring sense of comic timing that allows her lines to land just where they should.

Playing opposite Vaughn as heartthrob Link Larkin is Tyler Ashley, whose perfectly curled pompadour might be a bit anachronistic for 1962 but which, nonetheless, gives him the vaguest suggestion of bad boy-ness that makes him the perfect foil for our heroine. Ashley's performance is broad enough to make his more outlandish moments work in a theatrical sense (when he comes into the jail in search of his ladylove, he stops to comb back his hair and to announce that he is "Link Larkin, from the TV show," which is one of the evening's most charming scenes), yet his performance has the shadings of emotion and sensitivity that definitely make him crush-worthy.

Cast as Tracy's mom, the memorable Edna Turnblad (the role originally played by Divine and taken over on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein, two men whose pumps are truly too large to fill), Jake Harbour - who does double-duty as LU Theatre's technical director - creates his own memories with a refreshing interpretation of the role that doesn't rely on any stagey artifice. Instead, his Edna is appealing and winning simply because Harbour doesn't overplay her, walking a fine line that skirts stereotype and caricature while keeping Edna thoroughly grounded. Harbour's sure-handed performance (particularly in his sweetly evocative scenes with Jamin Craig, who is delightfully on-target as Edna's adoring husband Wilbur; their "You're Timeless to Me" is wonderfully performed and delightfully staged) is perfectly modulated; and he remains cognizant of the fact that a man is playing a woman, with all due respect.

Kristi Mason, playing Tracy's best girlfriend - the alliteratively namEd Penny Pingleton - is fully committed to presenting Penny at her daffy best, showing off her vocal chops on "Without Love" and "You Can't Stop the Beat." Michael Knox brings his stage presence to the role of Seaweed that allows his budding relationship with Penny to be warmly welcomed, and his performance of "Run and Tell That" is one of the show's highlights.

Playing Tracy Turnblad's arch-nemesis Amber Von Tussle allows Sydni Hayes the opportunity to showcase her talents at their villainous best and Hayes makes the most of her time onstage by crafting an Amber who is spiteful and self-absorbed, yet somehow likable. Leslie Marberry, as her manipulative mother Velma, is believably shrewish and over-the-top in a soap operaesque manner that's perfect for the character.

As Corny Collins, Luciano Vignola looks as if he actually has just stepped off the set of a 1962 dance show - he has the polished good looks and slightly smarmy deportment of the era's TV stars - and proves to be the host with the most. The young actors cast as members of the Corny Collins Council (aka "nice white kids who like to lead the way"), in addition to the aforementioned Messrs. Pritchett, Hogan and Hunt, also include Natalie Bowsher, Casey Edwards, Emily Faith, Lacy Hartselle and Jared Miller (who shines as Mr. Pinky of Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway fame).

The 43 members Boccitto's cast are each worthy of their own mention in this review, so completely engaging are their performances. But if I do that, I'll be writing for days rather than hours. Yet they are, to the last one, terrific. In fact, the show's casting is pitch perfect; you'll be amazed once you realize that all of the actors are in the same age range (late teens to early 20s) and yet, somehow, you don't notice their relative youth, instead you notice their maturity. For example, Jessica Moore is quite young, but her take on Motormouth Maybelle is so believable that she seems old enough to actually be mom to Shawna Rayford's wonderful Little Inez.

Finally, and without danger of any sense of fulsome exaggeration, I can say right here that they truly are "the nicest kids in town" and thanks to Boccitto and his creative team, they have given me the type of musical theater experience upon which I thrive and from which I derive much inspiration. They've only four more performances to offer to the public this weekend, so get yourselves in gear and go see Hairspray. You'll love it as much as I did. I promise.

--  Hairspray. Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. Music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman. Directed and choreographed by Justin Boccitto. Vocal direction by Janet Holeman. Conducted by Steve Rhodes. Presented by Lipscomb University Theatre, Nashville. Through November 6.  For details, call (615) 966-7075 or visit www.theater.lipscomb.edu.

 

 


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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis