BWW Review: HAIRSPRAY at Desert Theatreworks is an Explosion of Delightful Energy

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BWW Review: HAIRSPRAY at Desert Theatreworks is an Explosion of Delightful Energy

If you hear an explosion of energy coming from the east end of the valley over the next couple of weekends, it is almost certainly the production of Hairspray at Indio's Desert Theatreworks. I enjoyed virtually every detail of the production so much that it's hard to know where to start. The performers, the sets, the singing, the dancing, and above all, the exuberance of the performers grab us from our chilly winter evenings and whisk us away to a truly happy place!

The first thing we see onstage is teenager Tracy Turnblad (Celia Salazar) asleep in her bed. When the sun strikes her face, she leaps out of bed, fully dressed, and sings a joyful anthem to her city ("Good Morning, Baltimore"). She is joined by other residents who also hit her level of delighted enthusiasm at just being alive. Their exuberance lets us in the audience know that we are in store for something truly special.

We next meet Tracy's parents: Edna (Michael Pacas), a plus-size frump with hair in rollers who slaves her days away at her ironing board, and Wilbur (Timm McBride), an optimistic and excited jokester who owns a gag shop downstairs from their apartment. These two actors each have dozens - probably hundreds - of shows on their resumes, and the attention they attract from the audience simply through their skills in timing and pulling faces is a perfect balance to the high energy of the teenagers.

Those teenagers are the dancers on a daily televised sock hop, "The Corny Collins Show," with director Lance Phillips-Martinez doing onstage duty as the Dick-Clark-on-Steroids Corny Collins. His counterpoint in the TV studio is the show's producer, Velma Van Tussle (the multi-talented Jennifer Stowe), who keeps the kids in line - at least while the cameras are rolling - and who relives her youth through her daughter, the spoiled Amber Von Tussle (Rosie McInerney), whom she always shoves towards the best camera angles.

Tracy decides to audition for a dancer position which has become available, and she rushes to the studio with her bestie, Penny Pingleton (Leslye Martinez). There, she comes face to face with the company hunk, Link Larkin (an amazingly talented Noah Arce), and immediately she's ready to marry him ("I Can Hear the Bells").

Tracy's big-heartedness makes her want to integrate blacks into the daily dance show, not just relegating them to "Negro Day" once per month. Her efforts to integrate bring her to the record shop of Motormouth Mable (Keisha D), a songstress who seems to look after the kids in her "hood" who hang out at her record shop.

The production's level of excellence is first set by Celia Salazar as Tracy. Her face seems to generate its own lighting source from the optimism she displays with everything she encounters. Though she is nowhere near the size that Tracy's normally are (and in fact, has a rather cute figure), we can accept that she's big from the comments of others. She meets her perfect match in Noah Arce's Link. This lanky charmer never relaxes his focus on his character for a second, and his singing and dancing are first rate. Leslye Martinez is hard to take your eyes away from as she encourages Tracy to break every expectation that's placed on her, and finds a bit of forbidden love on her own.

Balancing this group of youngsters are Edna and Wilbur, Tracy's parents. Pacas manages to balance Edna's boredom with her life with the need for the character to be liked by the audience, and like him/her they do. When he dons high heels and even higher hair, he's close to 7' tall, so he commands attention with more than just his talent. McBride's Wilbur, a character sometimes portrayed as a sad-sack loser, is a high-energy child in a man's body, whose love for his wife and daughter know no bounds. Jennifer Stowe's Velma is a delight. She's pretty enough to justify her brag that she was once "Miss Baltimore Crabs," and her spats with Rosie McInerney as her daughter are authentic and funny. Keisha D is always a special delight, and her in-charge characterization of Motormouth Mable was great. Her second act spiritual, "I Know Where I've Been," practically brought the audience to their feet.

An enjoyable surprise was director/designer Lance Phillips-Martinez's turn as Corny Collins, the TV show's host. He seemed to be the dynamo generating the energy demonstrated by the kids on his show, though he was occasionally a bit more snarky when the TV cameras weren't rolling. An amusing variety of other adult roles were skillfully handled by PCT veteran Ron Young and DTW newcomer (but industry vet) Renee Solom. With an array of wigs and costumes, they created a battalion of funny supporting characters.

With the energy drilled into them by director Lance Phillips-Martinez, the vocals from Music Director Donald Kelley, and the high-octane dance moves of choreographer Heidi Hapner, the spirited ensemble drives the production forward with an energy that is reserved simply for teenagers. My expressions while watching them ranged from a full smile to outright delighted laughter. In fact, my cheekbones were actually sore by the end of the performance from so much smiling.

All of this season's sets have been the best in the company's six seasons, and I believe they have all been designed by Lance Phillips-Martinez. For this show, he used a collection of fixed and moveable panels with large op-art shapes in bright colors on them. When combined with Michelle Mendoza's colorful costumes, they added to the energy. Phil Murphy's lighting was bright, and quickly popped from one part of the stage to another as the action demanded. Art Healy and others gave us the big hair which the 60's loved, Miguel Arballo's sound was great (and though a couple of old dears next to me questioned the generous volume, I loved it). Stage manager Tresa Oden and her crew kept all technical operations running smoothly. I see a lot of plays each year, but this is one which I would gladly see again. Who doesn't want to have a good time?

And on another note, hats off to Artistic Director Lance Phillips-Martinez and Company CEO Ron Phillips-Martinez. Hairspray is their 50th production since they started their company with a humble (though very enjoyable) production in 2013 at Palm Desert's Jocelyn Center. Two years ago, they moved to the Indio Performing Arts Center, and they have made the building a hive of activities, seven days a week. In addition to their mainstage productions, they have a very active Kids Works program, and they are constantly seeking new and exciting uses for the entire venue. They are bringing a lot of interest and energy to downtown Indio, and the city seems to truly appreciate it.

Hairspray runs through March 24. It will be followed by the encore production of sit-com Love, Sex and the I.R.S., and a bonus post-season treat has been added: Real Women Have Curves, running May 10 - 19. Tickets and further information are available at

Photo by Paul Hayashi

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From This Author Stan Jenson