Like all of John Waters' work, Hairspray is set in his native Baltimore. The story takes place in the 1960s during a time of personal, local and national change. Plus-size teenager Tracy Turnblad (Jessica Fisher) quickly secures a spot on "The Corny Collins Show," a variety-style dance extravaganza. Armed with new moves taught to her by the black students populating detention, Tracy attempts to integrate the television show, much to the dismay of producer and ivory stage-mom Velma Von Tussle (Emily Melville). As they each wage their own wars for status, Fisher and Melville excel at adding subtle dimension to characters who are written as standard archetypes.
From the opening number, it is clear that choreographer Larry Aguilar has been busy directing the cast of thirty-five to not only dance in sync to the numbers demanded by "The Corny Collins Show," but also to use dance as a platform for individual character development. Never tentative in terms of movement, the actors at ALT constantly look like they are having fun moving to the music of the '60s. From his first number at the end of act one, audiences yearn to see more from Seaweed, son of Motormouth Maybelle, played by UNM Dance Major Jonte Culpepper. Every moment he is on stage, Culpepper is committed to crafting an energetic performance that fulfills the demands of the musical. Expertly cast, Culpepper is well-equipped to handle the physical and vocal requirements of the role.
While Culpepper never struggles to be heard, sound continues to be an issue for performers at Albuquerque Little Theatre. This musical, like many of its genre, requires full commitment from all on stage. While the ensemble never falters in terms of dance, it is constantly unclear whether microphones are operational. Cast members who have the vocal power and range to belt their numbers (Jessica Fischer, Emily Melville, Juanita Evans) fail to do so, perhaps out of fear that their microphones will suddenly and intermittently start working. While more seasoned performers work to adapt to the sound issues, younger members of the cast flounder. On opening night, members of the black singing trio (The Dynamites) visibly cringed, looking to one another for help as they attempted to get through "Welcome to the Sixties."
Directing a cast of thirty-five and an even larger production crew is no small feat, and Avery and his team have insured that details are not overlooked. Set backdrops depict a Baltimore row-home neighborhood with each individual brick and mailbox meticulously painted by Albert Rosales, Christina Lopez-Cherry and Ryan Montoya. Though the vibrancy of the musical is the responsibility of the actors on stage, set designer Colby Martin Landers ensures that each diverse set (living room, detention classroom, city jail, television studio and record store) transports audiences to a city fifty years and two thousand miles away.
One of the most memorable facets of this production is the costume design of Erin K. Moots. The entire cast is outfitted in era-appropriate costumes; and perhaps more impressively, the costumes never repeat from scene-to-scene. Moots' team of Lila Martinez, Jose Castro, Bonnie Tooley, Peggy Wells and Toni Turpen should be commended not only for accuracy and creativity, but also meticulous tailoring of each piece of wardrobe.
Though the production struggles with issues related to sound and the sustained energy required by a three-hour musical, audiences on opening night were dancing in the aisles during final curtain call. While the play is most remembered for its musical numbers and "creative" casting choices, it is also a theatrical documentation of an emotionally fraught period of American history: a reminder of how far we have come ... and how far we have left to go.
Hairspray by Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is presented by Albuquerque Little Theatre and directed by Henry Avery with musical direction by William Williams and choreography by Larry Aguilar. The show runs May 20-June 12, at the historic Albuquerque Little Theatre, 224 San Pasquale Street SW, just South of Old Town. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 2 PM. Tickets are $24, with discounts for students, children and seniors. For reservations call 505-242-4750 or visit www.albuquerquelittletheatre.org.
Photo courtesy of Albuquerque Little Theatre