BWW Review: Encore's HAIRSPRAY is a Fabulous Demonstration of Community!
Welcome to the sixties, or rather to the 15th year of Encore! Comprised entirely by Walt Disney World cast members and their families, the mega-team of volunteers took the Walt Disney Theater by storm on their opening night. With a monstrous orchestra of over 40 musicians and a choir boasting more than 70 stellar singers, the electric energy from Tracy's iconic "Oh, oh, oh's" at the start of the opening number, "Good Morning Baltimore," flew throughout the 2,700+ seat theater and bounced off the walls for the entirety of the show.
Cliff Price's bubbly and colorful set design brought us a fresh new take while still paying homage to the trends of the sixties time period. The use of hairspray cans is especially charming, including two giant cans that framed either side of the proscenium, and an entire backdrop of hairspray cans tied to one another, forming a kind of groovy texture against the cyclorama. Different playing levels onstage provided the separation of space in order for scenes to exist simultaneously in separate spaces. This is especially impressive in "Without Love," and "Mama I'm a Big Girl Now."
Katherine Almaguer Rivera did not hold back with her inventive choreography. You can forget about all Hairspray dance numbers being littered excessively with the cliche "pony" dance step (don't worry, there are some). Instead, Rivera takes advantage of the incredible talent and technique of the cast, and provides us with moments of jazz, line dance, and even ballroom styles! Audience members may be disappointed to see the tap number "Big Doll House" performed without tap shoes - a missed opportunity in my opinion. Rivera's choreography showcases Daniel Blumberg's costumes perfectly, featuring cupcake dresses with puffy skirts that keep swaying long after the actress inside stops moving and bright sequins for the finale number that sparkle and shine just as much as the ensemble of Baltimoreans.
Hannah Berry Matthews inhabits Tracy Turnblad with heart and genuine sincerity. Her compassionate acting, polished dancing, and powerhouse vocal chops carry the show. She is the ultimate female protagonist, as you fall in love with her almost instantly. Sonia Roman as the awkward and eager Penny Pingleton does not miss any opportunity to showcase her physical and verbal comedic abilities. She acts as the perfect sidekick to Tracy, and was the best part in "I Can Hear the Bells," usually a semi-boring ballad that takes place in Tracy's head, but was my favorite number of this production due to its sheer hilarity brought to life through Roman. Benjamin Ptashinsky-Skinner was the highlight of the production as Edna Turnblad with expert comedic timing balanced out with genuine heart and love for Tracy. CameRon Matthews plays opposite Ptashinsky-Skinner as Wilbur Turnblad, and their chemistry together can be described in no other way but adorable. The two feed off of one another and together they achieve the funniest moments of the show. In "You're Timeless to Me," a love duet the two sing with one another, there is an improvised set of dialogue that comes out of nowhere, featuring some sexual puns, Orlando-specific jokes, and moments of physical hilarity as well. Though this is at first hysterical, it goes on for far too long, turning a five-minute ballad into a twenty-minute comedic escapade, taking you out of the world of the show that has been so solidly established up to this point.
Natale Pirrotta inhabits the budding Elvis Link Larkin, and has an incredible voice with accompanying hip-swaying that likely mesmerized others besides the doting Tracy Turnblad. Kelley McGillicuddy plays the snake-like Velma von Tussle with poise and posh arrogance. Her singing voice is impressive, though several of her lines are lost due to an overpowering orchestra. Ardelia Butts is outstanding as Motormouth Maybelle and leads a powerful and almost overwhelming staging of "I Know Where I've Been," earning the cast a standing ovation halfway through Act 2.
The balance of sound was a lasting issue throughout the show. Songs featuring the entire ensemble were very loud and solo lines sung by individuals were swallowed up by an overpowering orchestra. Certain intermittent spoken lines were lost as well, likely due to mic issues. Even with these aural shortcomings, the show overall is extremely polished.
Tracy Turnblad achieves her dreams by going against the grain, thinking outside the box, and daring to be different. As Encore! Founder Clay Price said, "we all have a little Tracy in us." What a better personification of this statement than to see a company of almost two-hundred individuals both onstage and off volunteering their time, hearts, and ENDLESS supplies of energy to share this uplifting story with the Orlando community. This production of Hairspray reminds us to be bold in the pursuit of our dreams, and that "you have to think big to be big!"