BWW Review: Lots of Heart and Laughs at American Stage in the Park's HAIRSPRAY

If you are like me, then you can't wait for the annual American Stage in the Park offering. Once a year, you venture to Demens Landing Park in St. Petersburg, then sit outside either in a chair or on a picnic blanket, consuming delicious goods and drinks, waiting in line at a Port-O-Potty, and watching a fast and furious production that gets your feet tapping and your mouths on smile-mode. Two years ago, In the Heights surprisingly proved to be the perfect park show filled with an abundance of heart and soul that played well to the outdoor party revelers. Last year's Monty Python's Spamalot was a ton of fun but ultimately flawed; still, it carried on the great tradition of a guaranteed good time. This year American Stage offers a particular bouncy, extra lively production of a musical that is the quintessence of bounciness and liveliness, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's HAIRSPRAY. When it comes to these park shows, HAIRSPRAY falls somewhere between the excellence of In the Heights and the throwaway fun of Spamalot. It's such a good time that it oftentimes verges on greatness.

Unless you've lived in a cave for fifteen years and have refused to read or listen to anything, then you know that HAIRPSRAY is just about the most popular musical around not called Hamilton. It's a quirky ode to the Sixties, and it carries a message that still resonates in these troubled times--be yourself, fight to be who you want to be, no matter how much you weigh or the color of your skin.

HAIRSPRAY really lives or dies on its Tracy Turnblad, the larger-than-life lead character who wants to get on the American Bandstand-like dance sensation, "The Corny Collins Show," and ultimately to get the show integrated. The TV version of HAIRSPRAY from last year was a mixed offering mainly because its Tracy was mixed (and fumbled lyrics in the everyone-knows-the-words-to-the-song opener, "Good Morning, Baltimore," didn't help). In American Stage in the Park's version, Tracy is played by Allyson Pace, and though she seems a bit older than what teenage Tracy should be, she's a stunner. It's all there--acting chops, sensational vocals, and energy energy energy (did I say energy?). We feel comfortable whenever she was onstage, knowing that the iconic show is in good hands.

As Tracy's full-figured-and-then-some mother, Edna, it goes without saying that Matthew McGee (in drag) is perfectly cast. The role was made famous at first by Divine in the John Waters original (non-musical) film, then by Harvey Fierstein on Broadway and TV (and John Travolta in the movie version). McGee seems to have harkened back to the Divine years for his inspiration. But not the Divine of the 1988 film; his makeup in the early scenes reminds me of the Divine of Multiple Maniacs or the second half of Female Trouble. (Imagine Ethel Merman and Diana Dors meets a latter-day Joan Crawford.) It's a part McGee could do in his sleep. And as I watched one of the most talented local performers onstage in this production, I realized that we only get to see McGee in these safer vehicles. I would like someday for him to stretch himself in a part that really showcases his immense acting ability and range. When I first saw McGee onstage--as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at freeFall several years ago--he put it an incredibly layered performance which played perfectly toward his strengths. And his Mame two years ago, though questionable in concept by many, showcased a real actor; the scenes where young Patrick hurts Mame were handled brilliantly thanks to McGee's timing and ability to squeeze power out of silence. It was heartbreaking stuff, not camp. That moment, as if Mame had been kicked in the gut, is what I took with me after the show. I saw a real actor there, not just a drag persona.

That said, there are moments in HAIRSPRAY where he seemed to be channeling Harvey Korman rather than Harvey Fierstein, which isn't necessarily a bad thing (I adore Korman). But the prolonged pauses, the mugging, the is-he-going-to-break-character-or-not shtick, reminded me of "The Carol Burnett Show" sidekick. (Yes, it was brilliantly funny when Korman did it, mainly because he wasn't in a full-length play but brief TV skits when Tim Conway would inevitably crack him up.) Did McGee intend any Korman homage? I ask because for some reason he alluded to Carol Burnett, whose show made Harvey Korman nationally known, with his ear-tug during the HAIRSPRAY curtain call. But in the end, McGee gives a hilarious performance, certainly an audience favorite, and we will just have to wait another day for this talented force of nature to tackle something more bar-raising and gutsy.

Thomas Mothershed as Wilbur is an adorable companion to McGee's Edna, and their "You're Timeless to Me" is one of the highlights of the show. Meredith Pughe is a delightfully hideous Amber Von Tussle, and Alison Burns is gorgeously nasty as her Cruella de Vil of a mom. But I thought Velma's wig near the beginning looked too dowdy for the finicky and sleek Von Tussle. I loved Kayla Tomas as a particularly quirky and lovable Penny. She shoved all thoughts of Ariana Grande's disastrous TV turn as Penny out the window. DeeJay Young made a formidable Seaweed, and his final note of "Run and Tell That" left the audience stunned.

Jayne Trinette was quite powerful vocally as Motormouth Maybelle; her "I Know Where I've Been" was incredibly chill-inducing. I only wished the blocking of the scene matched Trinette's earth-shattering vocals. Nia Jamison-Sissle is adorable as the big-voiced Little Inez and also as one of the Dynamites, HAIRSPRAY'S resident girl group. (Jessica Rebecca and Shante Clarke are the other two Dynamites, both with soul-stirring vocals.)

Scott Daniel has never disappointed onstage, and his Corny Collins is yet another standout. He's becoming a local treasure that most musicals can't do without (he was the best thing in Spamalot last year and he, along with Pace's Tracy, is the best thing here). Daniel's "The Nicest Kids in Town" was sensationally galvanizing, much thanks to the actor's strong vocals and that sheer contagious love of being onstage. And the council members of his "Corny Collins Show" are a dynamic bunch: Erin Leigh Knowles, Adam Zeph, Ethan Zeph, Brianna Mooney, Matt Acquard, Emnanuel Carrero, Sadie Lockhart, and David Michael Bevis as Link Larkin.

Melanie Souza is over-the-top in all of her incarnations (especially the Gym Teacher), and Tom Bengston is passable as Mr. Pinky. The rest of the ensemble get quite a work out: Xerron Mingo, Matt Acquard, Shante Clarke, Jessica Rebecca, and Terrence Jamison.

Shain Stroff's direction is sure-footed and creative, but the major kudos go to Stroff's exciting choreography. Trish Kelly's costumes work wonders for the most part, but I thought Velma's first dress-red with white dots-was more suited for Rebecca of Sonnybrook Farm and not the fashionable villainess business woman of HAIRSPRAY. Mike Wood has returned to the area for his work here, and the lighting is full of life and color; it's a living thing. Jerid Fox's set is beautifully reminiscent of the atomic age; set pieces come and go like clock-work

There are major problems with J. Thor Productions' sound design, but that seems to always be the problem with the Park productions (the sound in In the Heights and Spamalot). The sound was just too loud and oftentimes earsplitting; at times it undermined the production.

Michael Raabe's musical direction is tight, glorious, as one would expect from the preeminent musical director of our area. He has assembled one incredible band: Along with Raabe on keyboards, there's David Estevez also on keyboards, Dave Pate on reeds, Paul Stoddart on guitar, Kenny Walker on bass, and the incomparable Burt Rushing on drums.

But the show is the hot one of the season, a must-see. So you must see it. You've heard of easy listening; this is easy watching. Even though its heart is in the right place and it deals with the serious subject of civil rights, expect lots of heart and laughs but don't expect anything with too much depth.

Still, although the musical is set in 1962, we live in a world where we need to hear this important message of togetherness and equality. I wish we didn't. I wish the theme of HAIRPSRAY became a distant memory and we can smile at how much we've grown as a nation, as a people. Yes, of course the world of today is better than 1962 when it comes to race relations. But we still need to hear Motormouth sing the anthem, "I Know Where I've Been." We still need to be reminded that we live in a country that can practice systematic and overt racism, sexism and weightism. There was even a clever allusion to last year's Pulse shootings in this HAIRSPRAY that was so well done that it didn't come across preachy or anachronistic (bravo to Jerid Fox and the prop department). One of the protestor's placards reads, "All Lives Share One Pulse." Forget 1962; if only the world of 2017 would listen...

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From This Author Peter Nason