Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
In recent years, the musical comedy has come back into vogue on Broadway, and the best of the lot is Hairspray. The show is irresistibly charming, refreshingly hilarious, wonderfully staged, and a source of joyful music and dancing. The show won eight Tony Awards in 2003, including Best Musical, and a feature film version is planned in the near future. The national tour currently running at the in Dayton, Ohio at the Shuster Center is a fully capable and entertaining production of this gift to musical theater.
Hairspray is based on the 1988 film of the same name from eccentric writer and director John Waters. As a teenager in Baltimore in 1962, Tracy Turnblad's one wish is to dance on the TV program The Corny Collins Show. Despite having a dress size that matches her big hairdo, the spunky heroine earns her way onto the show and even captures the heart of the show's hunk, Link Larkin. With her newfound fame, Tracy becomes a spokesperson for plus-size girls and leads the push to racially integrate the TV program and the rest of city with the help of her unique parents, school chums, and other denizens of Baltimore.
Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan deservedly won Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical for Hairspray. They wisely took the best of what made the film a cult classic and added new ideas to create a story that is timeless (the need to fit in), funny (without having to rely on foul language or cheap laughs), socially significant (tackling prejudice based on both race and body type), romantic, and the perfect balance of reality and camp.
The score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman also garnered a Tony Award. The songs uniformly possess infectiously energizing melodies, skillfully crafted lyrics (often with witty double meanings), and toe-tapping rhythms that are difficult to resist. The numbers wonderfully mirror the musical styles of the period, including old-fashioned rock-n-roll, rhythm & blues and gospel, all in a professionally rendered musical theater format. The opening number, "Good Morning Baltimore," splendidly sets the tone of the show, and songs such as "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," "Welcome to the Sixties," "Run and Tell That," and the glorious quartet "Without Love" continue the celebration of all that musicals should be. The final song, "You Can't Stop The Beat," is a perfect finish with its high energy and uplifting messages.
As Tracy, Keala Settle portrays the character with spunk and determination, and demonstrates an impressive singing voice, especially toward the end of the show when she gets to belt. Ms. Settle also garners lots of laughs, especially during the scenes in which she is either swooning for Link or feeling like a gawky fish out of water. J.P. Dougherty has big shoes to fill as Edna, Tracy's mom. The role was originated by Harvey Fierstein in New York and by comedian Bruce Vilanch on tour. While Mr. Dougherty's delivery of some of the dialogue seems unnatural and forced (he is portraying a woman, after all), he embodies the role fittingly and sings better than any of his predecessors. Dougherty and John Salvatore (understudy on for Jim J. Bullock as Tracy's dad, Wilbur) make their duet "Timeless To Me" both a first-rate vaudevillian number and a charming love song between husband and wife.
Aaron Tveit (Link) and Alan Mingo, Jr. (Seaweed) are perfectly suited vocally (better than the others seen in these roles by this reviewer) and are natural fits in the acting department as well. Cassie Levy is lovably quirky and sings well as Penny, Tracy's best friend, and she has some wonderful non-verbal comedic moments. Charlotte Crossley (Motormouth Maybelle) supplies a spine-tingling and moving performance of "I Know Where I've Been." Tara Macri (Amber), Susan Henley (Velma) and Paul McQuillan (Corny Collins) impress as well. For area theatergoers familiar with Cincinnati Conservatory of Music shows, recent grad Jacqui Polk is a swing in Hairspray and made the most of it appearing on opening night as Shelley. The rest of the ensemble also put forth praiseworthy triple-threat performances.
Even with a humorous and timely book, a first-rate score, and other strong elements, bringing this show together into one cohesive unit isn't an easy task. However, Tony Award winner Director Jack O'Brien has done so with exceptional results. O'Brien stages scenes in an enormously effective manner, and his attention to detail is commendable. A tone of excitement is maintained throughout, and both the comedy and the seriousness of the material are communicated to maximum effect without being overly silly or preachy. His staging of "I Can Hear the Bells" and many other moments approach genius level. Choreographer Jerry Mitchell does excellent work here as well, and his dances deftly capture the flavor of the decade. The vibrancy of the choreography in numbers such as "The Nicest Kids in Town," "Run and Tell That," "The Big Dollhouse" (featuring wonderful background moves by the ensemble) and the finale is contagious. Jim Vukovich enthusiastically leads a talented reduced pit of musicians playing the apt orchestrations by Harold Wheeler.
Hairsprayalso features beautiful design elements. The sets by David Rockwell are fun, inventive, and well-crafted. William Ivey Long's costumes are impeccable as usual, and the exquisitely colorful lighting design by Kenneth Posner is visually interesting and playful.
The intense energy and joy generated by a performance of Hairspray is just the thing that audiences on a cold winter night in the Midwest need to warm them up. The show is a pure delight and the national tour of the show is highly recommended, in no small part due to its talented cast. Hairspray continues at the Schuster Center in Dayton through February 12, 2006. Tickets can be ordered by calling (937) 228-3630.-- Scott Cain