BWW Review: Lost Nation's HAIRSPRAY is a Non-Stop Delight
Lost Nation Theater opened a high-energy production of the musical HAIRSPRAY last week at Montpelier's City Hall Arts Center.
The narrative follows bubbly teen Tracy Turnblad, who lives to watch the Corny Collins Show, an American Bandstand-style television spectacle. Tracy desperately wants to dance on the show, but meets with resistance from her mother, who doesn't want Tracy to face rejection because of her larger-than-average size. The ever-persistent Tracy manages to charm Corny Collins and get a spot on the show, over the objections of producer Velma von Tussle. What follows is a rollicking romp of 1960s-inspired music and dance, with a story that deals with body image, racism, and social justice.
Lauren DuPuy's Tracy Turnblad is spot on: high-spirited and optimistic, with a strong sense of right and wrong. Shawn A. Sturdevant's portrayal of Edna, Tracy's mother, is honest and authentic. (It's easy to play this role as a campy drag caricature, but Sturdevant makes Edna very real.) William Pelton turns in an endearing performance as Wilbur, Tracy's father, and Pelton and Sturdevant's duet, "You're Timeless to Me", is particularly sweet.
Leon Evans is a charismatic Seaweed (and an exceptionally strong singer and dancer). Libby Belitsos melts hearts in the role of Penny, Tracy's shy best friend. Pat Moran is charming as Link Larkin, and G. Richard Ames is a magnetic Corny Collins. Taryn Noelle (Velma von Tussle) and Hannah Brown (Amber von Tussle) are a delightful mother/daughter villain duo.
Colorful period costumes are by Cora Fauser and Sally DeCicco and an effective set is by Wally Eastland. The singing (masterfully prepared by Nick Bombicino) is strong throughout, and is backed by a five-piece band (also led by Bombicino). Where this show really shines, however, is in its dancing (which is, after all, what ultimately unites its characters across racial and cultural divides).
"It's a really high-energy style," says choreographer Taryn Noelle of the show's '60s-inspired moves. "A lot of the dancing can be free, but some of it has to be really exact. It's a nice balance of both of those angles." Noelle prepared a group of local teen cast members in dance workshops prior to the arrival of the show's out-of-town actors. "Working with the kids has taught me a great deal, and I am so glad to have had this time with them," she says. Noelle clearly taught them a great deal, too, and several of these teens pull off her superb choreography with as much finesse as the more experienced performers. Noelle is quick to acknowledge that putting together the show's dance numbers was a team effort. "Hannah and Leon both brought and gave so much movement and choreographic inspiration to this show, and I count my blessings for both of them," she says of associate choreographer Hannah Roberts Brown and dance captain/assistant choreographer Leon Evans.
Director Kathleen Keenan's thoughtful staging sets the backdrop for the examination of the serious issues at the root of the story. "It's not often that you get to work on a joyous 'pure fun' piece that also has teeth - a show that, even as it's making you happy, asks you to think about acceptance, body image, racial justice, and LGBTQ issues," Keenan notes. "For me, the message of HAIRSPRAY boils down to 'don't be scared of someone, or reject them, simply because they look different than you'. It's one that, sadly, we need reminding of again and again and again."
Despite dealing with some very weighty issues, this production of HAIRSPRAY can't help but leave audience members feeling hopeful and optimistic. "I love how we've used the immediacy [of Lost Nation Theater's intimate space] to bring out the heart of the play [...] and its very serious message, while not sacrificing for a moment the joy, exuberance, and bigness that is HAIRSPRAY," Keenan says.
"There is so much heart in this story," adds Noelle, "and standing on stage at the end of the show watching these wonderful artists shine, with hearts beating fully and brightly, is truly moving."
HAIRSPRAY continues at Lost Nation Theater through May 8, 2016. Visit www.lostnationtheater.org for times and tickets.
Images courtesy of Lost Nation Theater.
Lost Nation Theater has partnered with the Peace & Justice Center, Outright Vermont, Vermont Works for Women, and Christ Church to present events and discussions related the the themes of HAIRSPRAY. Learn more here.