Saturday, July 29, 2017

WOBT: "Hairspray"

Director Mary Katherine Moore and her expert team of designers, choreographers, musicians, and actors, transform Prattville's tiny Way Off Broadway Theatre into 1962 Baltimore for a joyous production of the 2002 musical Hairspray that's been getting spontaneous standing ovations at every performance.

Based on John Waters' 1988 film, this multiple Tony, Drama Desk, and Olivier Award-winning musical was made into a popular 2007 film, a TV special in 2016, and has had an enviable international production record. -- With a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, the pedigree speaks for itself; and the WOBT company are certainly up to the task.

Two-and-a-half-hours fly by, as the 30+ member ensemble act, sing, and dance their collective ways into our hearts, telling the story of "pleasantly plump" teenager Tracy Turnblad [Merelee Robinson] as she attempts to secure a role as one of the "nicest kids in town" on the Corny Collins [Tate G. Pollock] afternoon television dance show, and on the way discovers love for teen idol Link Larkin [Michael Armstrong], and leads the way to racially integrating the Corny Collins Show.

Tracy gets sent to detention where she meets several African-American students, among them Seaweed Stubbs [Matthew Mitchell], who teaches her some new dance steps. When she realizes that "Negro Day" on the Collins show is only once a month, she doesn't understand why Blacks and Whites aren't allowed to dance together, and determines to do something about it. And when her friend Penny [Lucie Chesser] falls for Seaweed, things get even more complicated, especially since Penny's bigoted mother Prudy [Elizabeth Bowles] would never approve.

But Tracy's parents are there to support her. Wilbur [Michael Buchanan], the goofy owner of a joke shop, encourages his daughter to follow her dreams; and Edna [Jon Darby], a self-consciously plus-sized woman who runs a laundry business at her home which she hasn't stepped out of in years, delights in Tracy's new-found fame.

There are other obstacles in Tracy's way -- from the cool kids' mocking her weight, to the resistance against integrating the TV show -- but love and inclusion will win the day.

Amber Von Tussle [Kiersten Mattox], a local beauty used to winning the "Miss Hairspray" contest and Link's long time girlfriend, does her best to obstruct Tracy's chances; and her mother Velma [Olivia Crutchfield], a former beauty contest winner and producer of the Corny Collins Show, conspires against Tracy and any attempt to integrate the show.

With the assistance of Motormouth Maybelle [Makayla Matthews], the "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful" hostess of "Negro Day", the kids march on the Corny Collins Show, get thrown into jail, and ultimately rock the house with a "now and forever" integrated show.

There is a certain amount of nostalgia for 1960s music, and the score delivers the spirit of the era without sentimentality; the songs have familiar sounds and lyrics, but manage to be current as well. "Good Morning Baltimore" opens the show with a feel-good sensibility that hardly goes away, "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" has the three girls and their mothers spatting about growing up, and "Welcome to the Sixties" is a reminder that social and societal change is on its way. And "I Can Hear the Bells" and "It Takes Two" are universal paeans to young love.

"Run and Tell That", "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful", and the powerful anthem "I Know Where I've Been" drive home the serious messages of racial inclusion and social acceptance that were 1960s' imperatives that resonate as strongly today as our world is confronted by obstruction, name-calling, and fear-mongering from every quarter.

Layne Holley's masterful use of periaktoi in her stage design makes the simple set pieces serve numerous purposes; costumes by Carol Heier, Cheryl Jones, Faye Parker, Judy Savage, and Danny Davidson replicate the 60s and are character driven in their choices; Daren Eastwold's and Ms. Moore's choreography is energetic, capturing the spirit of the period and challenging the ensemble. Marilyn Swears' musical direction gives attention to the strong solo voices as well as the dynamic chorus.

The ensemble is terrific as they depict a variety of characters [done in a twinkling with the able assistance of off-stage dressers], as they drive the plot forward and support the featured actors -- specially noteworthy is the African-American girl trio who command the stage on every appearance. -- Two cameo roles are played with verve by Scott Page as Mr. Pinky, the owner of a line of clothes for plus-sized women who "dresses" Tracy when she gets some acclaim; and Leslie Bailey as the mean-spirited Prison Matron who gets her kicks from abusing inmates. Both are enjoyable.

Ms. Moore is fortunate to have gathered an ideal cast in the major roles: Ms. Chesser and Mr. Mitchell seem so well paired and comfortable with each other, and her shy and nerdy Penny is a perfect foil to his self-assurance as Seaweed. -- As the nasty Von Tussles, it is clear how parents often influence the worst behavior in their offspring; Ms. Crutchfield's domineering Velma is replicated in Ms. Mattox's impersonation of the spoiled Amber. -- Mr. Pollock imbues Corny Collins with all the slick show-biz elan he can muster; Corny is the consummate TV host with one eye on the camera and one eye on his appearance, and a smile he turns on on cue. Good work.

Ms. Matthews' depiction of Motormouth Maybelle is passionate and compassionate; she shows a clear understanding of the racial situation and rises above the stereotypical. A powerful performance.

Almost a match made in heaven, Mr. Darby's Edna and Mr. Buchanan's Wilbur register a comfort that is admirable; their heartfelt support of Tracy is sincere, and their love-duet -- "Timeless to Me" -- is the sweetest declaration of love and respect between two unremarkable individuals that nonetheless leave a lasting impression on the audience. Mr. Darby in drag is so committed to the role that one thinks of him only as Edna.

Mr. Armstrong's Link -- a heartthrob if ever there was one -- has the youthful good looks the role requires; and his ability to ingratiate himself through audience "asides" and swoon-inducing swaggers makes it possible for Tracy to fall for him hook-line-and-sinker. Add to this a pleasant singing voice, able stage presence, and a confident connection to Ms. Robinson's Tracy, and you have a solid performance.

Ms. Robinson, though, is the heart and soul of Hairspray; it is her story that holds everything together, so it is important that we are on her side from the start. And from the top of the show to its rousing conclusion where she leads the company in "You Can't Stop the Beat", there is never a moment when she is onstage that we are not rooting for her. Whether she is cajoling her parents or Penny, or standing up to Amber and Velma, or connecting with Seaweed and Motormouth Maybelle, or pining away with love for Link, or rallying the troops to demonstrate for inclusion, tolerance, and acceptance of all people, Ms. Robinson's commitment, energy, vocal endurance, and persistent optimism are the major forces in this production. Kudos.

This WOBT production of Hairspray should have River Region audiences talking for some time. In meeting the play's many challenges, in cooperative and collaborative work from numerous local theatres and their personnel, in addressing the serious themes of inclusion that are still too much with us, and in providing a dynamic and provocative and delightful evening's sold-out entertainment, there's more than enough evidence that live theatre is thriving here.