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Chicago by John Olson

Hairspray
Drury Lane Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Being Shakespeare, Fish Men and The March

Hairspray
Lillian Castillo, Michael Lindner, Felicia Fields
It's way too early for a Broadway revival of Hairspray, but if it weren't, its producers would be lucky to come up with a production as good as the one that just opened at Chicago's Drury Lane Theatre. It boasts a cast that can knock every number out of the park and an energy that makes it roll over everything in its path. Speaking of rolls, the Drury Lane continues to be on one, following up on its top-shelf productions of Sweeney Todd, The Sound of Music and Gypsy. They're kept up their winning strategy of casting from Chicago's formidable talent pool as appropriate, and bringing in outside talent when needed. Director-Choreographer Tammy Mader has used both options to come up with casting that compares well with the Broadway and feature film originals while delivering some refreshingly unexpected choices in her take on the musical version of John Waters's 1988 film that tells how a plus-sized girl in 1962 Baltimore helped to integrate a local TV dance show.

The prime example of this production's top outside talent is Lillian Castillo, a young veteran of southwestern regional theatre who is every bit as appealing and as much of a find as Broadway's Marissa Jaret Winokur and the film's Nikki Blonsky. The tiny Castillo has a big, but pleasingly clear singing voice and moves with grace and animation. Her comic timing is perfect and some of her best moments are reactions to the characters around her, like her dreamy infatuated gazes at Link, who is unaware of her adoration. On the "surprising" side of the ledger is Chicago's Michael Aaron Lindner as Edna. Lindner, a Jeff Award winner for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd with Porchlight, plays (and resembles) Edna as played by Divine rather than Harvey Fierstein. It's a smart choice not to attempt an imitation of Harvey, and Lindner has both the comic chops and especially the singing voice to pull it off. His physical height also provides an opportunity for built-in laughs by casting him against the diminutive "Saturday Night Live" alum Tim Kazurinsky as Wilbur. Kazurinsky, making his musical theater debut, gives us a genuine and warm Wilbur—never stooping for easy laughs. He and Lindner give us a lot of fun with a sexually suggestive "You're Timeless to Me" and Kazurinsky's head being at breast level to Lindner's Edna makes for some easy, but nonetheless fun jokes.

Hairspray
Tim Kazurinsky and Michael Lindner
One of the side benefits of Drury Lane's practice of hiring talent rather than stars, is the opportunity to let supporting performers shine. This show has two absolute knockouts in its Maybelle and Seaweed. Felicia Fields, the Chicago-based Tony nominee (for The Color Purple) is Motormouth Maybelle, and her two numbers—the bluesy "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" and the gospel anthem "I Know Where I've Been"—are absolute showstoppers, thanks to the emotion and sheer power of Fields' voice. A charismatic and triple threat performer, Jon-Michael Reese nails "Run and Tell That," and The New York based recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University has a real sexual energy as well in his scenes with the talented Chicago comic actress Rebecca Pink as Penny. Also imported from New York is Erik Altemus, who sings quite nicely and gives heartthrob Link a real vulnerability, making us understand why he'd be attracted to Tracy. Keely Vasquez and Holly Laurent are just villainous enough to be funny as the Von Tussle mother and daughter team. Rod Thomas and Joshlyn Lomax are winners as Corny Collins and Little Inez, while Holly Stauder and George Andrew Wolff capably play multiple minor characters (though Wolff works harder than he should at being funny).

In an interview, director-choreographer Mader said she returned to the source for inspiration. This is most evident in the casting of Lindner as Edna by way of Devine. His rough-hewn bass in place of Fierstein's gravelly voice gives Mader's vision an earthier texture, to be sure, and together with a heightened sexual energy, her direction does give the piece a certain Watersian subversiveness. Not so much to be uncomfortable, though, and the musical's sunniness still comes through. Essential to this high-energy party is Mader's superb young ensemble. After struggling a little with their portrayal of seedy locals in the opening number "Good Morning, Baltimore," they're completely in their element as high school kids. Their execution of Mader's 1960s-influenced dances is impeccable throughout, though, and the 16-member ensemble is every bit as successful and important to the show as its leads. They not only set a high bar early in the show for energy, but impressively are still able to find a way build up to an even higher plane for the finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat."

The sets by Marcus Stephens are in the colorful and cartoonish vein of the David Rockwell Broadway sets, but scaled down to Drury Lane size. A series of flats from which settings like the Turnblad living room and Penny's bedroom emerge as cutouts on a second level, they set a fun and fanciful tone for the piece. Kurt Alger's wigs and pastel-infused costumes, though, seem in no way scaled back—as outrageous and spectacular as would befit the most demanding of drag queens.

While I've always been a fan of Hairspray, in both its original Broadway production and the feature film, this production—thanks largely to the breakout performances by Reese and Fields—has given me new respect for the writing by composer Marc Shaiman, Lyricist Scott Wittman and bookwriters Thomas Meehan and Mark O'Donnell. Mader seems to have a sort of "no number left behind" strategy which somehow succeeds in making every song a near-showstopping winner. She doesn't stop the beat—at least not until an extended curtain call is over. And even then we don't want it stop.

Hairspray will be performed through June 17, 2012, at the Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. For ticket information, call the Box Office at 630-530-0111 or visit Ticketmaster or visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com.


Photo: Brett Beiner

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-- John Olson



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