BWW Review: HAIRSPRAY at Bay Area Musicals Provides the Perfect Tonic for Our Times
Is the state of the world making you more than a little crazy these days? The president's latest racist rants gotcha down? Well, Bay Area Musicals' production of "Hairspray" just might be the perfect remedy to lift you out of your despair and make you believe in our collective power to triumph over all the nastiness out there. The show pulls off the neat trick of delivering an upbeat, larger than life entertainment while also conveying a powerful message about the need for us all to band together if we're going to extinguish racism, and a host of other isms along the way. Lessons from the civil rights movement are presented without the show ever feeling didactic or preachy.
Based on the idiosyncratic 1988 John Waters' film of the same name, the stage musical is set in 1962 Baltimore and centers on one Tracy Turnblad. Tracy is obsessed with getting a chance to dance on the local Corny Collins TV show (think Baltimore's answer to "American Bandstand") even though she is short of stature, ample of waist and decidedly not one of the cool kids. Once she makes it on the show, Tracy galvanizes the local community to demand its integration, liberating her agoraphobic mother Edna and put-upon best friend Penny in the bargain.
The show boasts a top-notch score by Scott Wittman and Mark Shaiman, chock full of songs that manage to be super catchy within a pop-tune idiom while also advancing the plot. A prime example is the second number in the show, "The Nicest Kids in Town." It simultaneously introduces a host of individual characters, shows us what the Corny Collins Show is all about, and establishes the show's main the theme of battling racism. And - the song is infectiously upbeat and brilliantly performed by the cast here. They maintain the sort of over-caffeinated energy emblematic of teen dance shows, with each cast member constantly playing to the omnipresent camera, aware that at any moment their shining face will be the one beamed into Baltimore's living rooms.
The real star here is the direction and choreography by Matthew McCoy. For "Hairspray" to work, it has to maintain a tricky balance between outsized personalities and recognizable human behavior. McCoy has deftly guided his performers to all be on the same page in maintaining that dichotomy. And what a joy it is to see a show with this much choreography so well performed! Number after number is performed with an exhilarating cohesion while also allowing just enough latitude for each performer to register as an individual character.
Virtually every one of the dozen or so ensemble actors playing the teenagers deserves to be singled out for praise. In a company of equals, though, I have to give extra props to Brendan Looney as Sketch and Steven McCloud as I.Q., who are perhaps a little more equal than the rest as they both bring an extra fillip of quirk, prowess and just plain joy of performing. Special mention must also be made of Smita Patibanda, Chanel Tilghman, and Peli Naomi Woods as the Dynamites, a prototypical 60's girl group. Their tight harmonies are thrillingly crystalline, and in their brief solos each one proves she has the chops to be a lead singer in her own right.
Performances of the principal roles range from capable to downright spectacular. In the latter category is Dave Abrams as Seaweed J. Stubbs, who shows off some irresistibly smooth dance moves and a strong and supple voice - and that's before he tosses off some thrilling acrobatics. Melissa Momboisse as Tracy's best friend Penny Pingleton might be playing just the sidekick, but you'd never know it from watching her. She is wonderfully alive every moment that she's onstage, finding countless offbeat shadings in Penny's innate dorkiness, and showing off some serious pipes once Penny's true self emerges. Scott DiLorenzo brings a welcome grounded quality to Edna Turnblad, the self-described "simple housewife of indeterminate girth" though I would have liked more girlishness from him to help us see beyond the man in the dress. Elizabeth Jones sings powerfully as local DJ/record store owner Motormouth Maybelle, even if her stage presence tends to recede when she isn't singing.
The design team makes solid contributions, especially given that they are working within the constraints of the Victoria Theater's limited wing space and technological capabilities. Scenic designer Lynn Grant's clean, efficient sets smoothly shift to a variety of disparate locations without drawing focus from the performers. Brooke Jennings' parade of costumes run from the sublime (dressing the teenage characters in an array of period-specific plaids and sherbet tones) to the unfortunate (Edna & Tracy's underwhelming mother-daughter makeover dresses, meant to signal their burgeoning hipness).
What ultimately makes "Hairspray" register as more than just an entertaining trifle is its lulu of an 11 o'clock number. "I Know Where I've Been" comes at the kids' lowest moment when they're feeling utterly defeated and hopeless. Stirringly sung by Elizabeth Jones, it's hard to believe this song wasn't written just yesterday in direct response to the current state of our nation. As the lyrics state, "There's a dream in the future. There's a struggle we have yet to win. Use that pride in our hearts to lift us up to tomorrow cause just to sit still would be a sin." It's enough to make you believe not only that if we all work together, we will be able to move this seemingly immovable dark cloud that currently hovers over us, but that is incumbent on us all to take action.
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio
Bay Area Musical's production of "Hairspray" runs through August 11th at the Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St., San Francisco, CA 9103. Tickets and further information are available at www.bamsf.org/hairspray or by calling 415-340-2207.