Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Hairspray arrived on stage in 2002 as a fairly traditional musical with a few gestures toward edginess. The years since then have softened those edges, so that the show now feels fairly tame. That said, it remains a winning musical: thoroughly funny yet with something important on its mind, has a consistently strong score with hummable tunes, numerous occasions for lively dancing and colorful characters. Artistry's production of Hairspray that opened last Friday at the Bloomington Center for the Arts puts those assets to good use, offering up a highly entertaining show.
Hairspray, like the 1988 John Waters film on which it is based, is set in 1962 Baltimore. It is the story of Tracy Turnblad, a good hearted and positive-minded high school student who believes in her dream of being on the Corny Collins rock n' roll dance show (think Dick Clark's American Bandstand) despite her considerable girth and lack of fashion saavy, for which she is cruelly teased by classmates. Tracy accepts everyone, including the African American kids allowed to appear on the show on just one day a month, dubbed by the show's producer "Negro Day". She guilelessly states that "Negro Day" is stupid and that they should all be able to dance together. This is 1962, before Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech or Freedom Riders, and Baltimore still had the flavor of a southern city. Tracy has her work cut out for her.
Tracy stands up to the narcissism and endless taunts of her nemesis, Amber Von Tussle, and Velma Von Tussle, Amber's mother and producer of the Corny Collins show. She sets her romantic sights on the show's teen heartthrob, Link Larkin; befriends Seaweed, a black student who takes her up to his mom's record shop: gets arrested; and becomes a civil rights leader. In the process, Tracy also brings her mother Edna out of her shell, convincing her that, just like skin color, size shouldn't limit a person's pursuit of happiness. Super plus-sized Edna had given up leaving the house, mortified by her physical presence, but Tracy's example gives Edna the courage to not only step out, but to claim her power.
Edna is in many ways as central to the story as is Tracy. Of the two, Edna goes through the greater transformation, getting in touch with her strength and learning to accept herself. In the original movie, camp-happy director Waters cast drag actor Devine (a regular in Waters' films) as Edna. Divine's very large build and deep voice was the polar opposite of feminine allure. The idea of having Edna played by a man was carried to the musical, with Harvey Fierstein originating the role on Broadway. The notion of a large, clearly male body and a husky voice channeled into a shy, maternal character was, in 1988 one of the edgy aspects of the Waters' movie, abetted by Divine's bizarre bearing. In 2002 it was still novel, if not breaking taboos, and Fierstein was a far more lovable matriarch. Now it feels like just an interesting casting choice in a world where gender roles are constantly changing.
While Artistry maintains the tradition of casting a man to play Edna, the actor, Brandon Caviness, does not project the usual burly dude in a frock and wig. Caviness is large, but does not overwhelm with his largess. His voice is gentle and high enough in pitch to be as easily taken for a woman as a man. This distracts not a bit from his performance. In fact, it allows Caviness to genuinely act the part of Edna, free of the artifice of cross-gender burlesque. He does a fine job of showing us Edna's liberation from the bonds of self-loathing, and projects a nurturing persona as Tracy's mom. He sings better than other Ednas I have heard and dances with grace. It is a credit to Caviness' performance to say that it felt as if this Edna is a woman, rather than a man in garish masquerade.
Grace Anderson plays Tracy with all the right moves. She sings with power, dances well enough to earn that spot on the Corny Collins show, and maintains the necessary balance between innocence and worldliness to make Tracy believable. It is a terrific performance, and one looks forward to seeing what Anderson will do next.
In a show-stopping performance, Bey Jackson plays Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed's mother and proprietor of a North Avenue record shop, who provides an avenue for Tracy's desire to change the way things are. Jackson is fine in her spoken lines, but soars in her vocals, with two huge numbers the Act I closer, "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" and the eleven o'clock gospel-toned "I Know Where I've Been."
A trio of female character parts are all performed winningly. Angela Steele manages to portray an Amber Van Tussle that is obnoxious, self-centered and charmless, yet still funny. As mother Velma Von Tussle, Wendy Short-Hayes is a hilarious villainess, especially reliving her glory days as "Miss Baltimore Crabs". Catherine Noble plays Penny Pingleton, Tracy's loyal friend, as simpleton who follows Tracy without question, leading to her own blossoming.
The male characters do not fare as well. Link Larkin is said to be an irresistible heart-throb. Nicholas Kaspari has the good looks, and is a great dancer, but his singing is subdued and he never projects the charisma to have all the girls crying out his name. Alan Holasek lacks conviction as Tracy's dad, Wilbur. He is said to be enamored with his joke-shop business, but never conveys a sense that this dream-come true really excites him. In his romantic turn with Caviness, "Timeless to Me," he does not convey a sense of married love still aflame. As TV host Corny Collins, Zachary Schaeffer sings and dances well enough, but doesn't project the pizazz one expects of a TV star. Only Peyton Dixon, as Seaweed, impresses with his singing, dancing and attitude.
Hairspray has a lot more dancing than most musicals I count eight full ensemble dance numbers, plus several character dances. Choreographer Kristin Liams puts these opportunities to good use with dances that capture the youthful and innocent rock and rolling spirit of the era. A hard working ensemble make it all look like great fun. The opening "Good Morning Baltimore" is not truly a dance piece, but is replete with movement and stage pictures that fully establish the upbeat tone. Similarly, "I Can Hear the Bells," Tracy's fantasy of romance with Link, is staged with fluid movement and great humor. Music is an essential element of the staging, and the fact that virtually every song is well crafted and the orchestra is a tight unit under Anita Ruth's direction, makes listening to Hairspray a non-stop joy.
Costume designer Ed Gleeman has done a great job of capturing the mismatched pastels of the early 1960's, with a step or two into the mod years that lie just ahead. Tracy and Edna's makeover are especially impressive. Wig and makeup designer Paul Bigot must have had a field day designing ladies wigs with hairdos that get higher and higher, and gloriously ludicrous as the show progresses.
In contrast, the set design is modest, to the point of appearing skimpy. A background of cut-out buildings forms a cartoon-like city streetscape, a platform signifies the Turnblad home and bright signs descend to identify other locations. No doubt because the orchestra is placed on one side of the stage, the cut-out buildings on that side are half-sized so that the audience can view the musicians behind them. This diminishes the sense of an urban environment. On a technical note, there were a few sound and light cue flubs on opening night in particular, during the dual duet "Without Love" - which one expects to have been corrected in subsequent performances.
While Artistry's mounting of Hairspray is overwhelmingly fun, the message of acceptance of body-types, race, and gender still bears repeating. In the scene where marchers descend on the Corny Collins Show, some of the protest signs held have been updated, stating "Black Lives Matter" and "Hands Up, Don't Shoot". Certainly, no thinking person in the audience needs these reminders that the heartfelt calls for justice in 1962 are still needed in 2015. If anything, the passing of time and growing disparities may make the need for change more urgent than ever. So see Hairspray and enjoy yourself, but don't be surprised if you also find yourself thinking about changing times both theirs and ours.
Hairspray continues through September 13, 2015 in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN. Tickets: $33.00 - $36.00. $4.00 per ticket discount for seniors, age 62 and up; $9.00 per ticket discount for ages 25 and younger. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or go to artistrymn.org.
Music: Marc Shaiman; Lyrics: Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman; Book: Mark O"Donnell and Thomas Meehan; Director: Michael Matthew Ferrell; Associate Director/Choreographer: Kristin Iiams; Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Assistant Music Director: Colleen Somverville-Leeman; Choreography Assistants/Dance Captains: Emily Madigan and Krysti Wilta; Set Design: Erica Zaffarano; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Sound Designer: Peter Morrow; Sound Engineer: Dan Smieska; Properties Design: Sarah Holmberg; Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Production Stage Manager: Wendy Arndt; Assistant Stage Manager: Shannon Morgan
Cast: Grace Anderson (Tracy Turnblad), Michael Terrell Brown (Gilbert), Brandon Caviness (Edna Turnblad), Falicia Cunningham (Karnilah), Peyton Dixon (Seaweed), Shana Eisenberg (Female Authority Figures), Wendy Short Hayes (Velma Von Tussle), Alan Holasek (Wilbur Turnblad), Bey Jackson (Motormouth Maybelle), Andrew Jacobson (Brad), Kayla Jenerson (Lorraine), Alexander Johnson (Duane), Nicholas Kaspari (Link Larkin), Megan Kedrowski (Male Authority Figures), Christain LaBissoniere (Fender), Michelle Lemon (Brenda), Kennedy Lucas (Little Inez), Emily Madigan (Judine), Catherine Noble (Penny Pingleton), Nikko Raymo (Stooie), Zachary Schaeffer (Corny Collins), Hailey Starr Sowden (Lou Ann), Elly Stahlke (Tammy), Angela Steele (Amber Von Tussle), Derek Sveen (Sketch), Marisa B. Tejeda (Shayna), Luke Tourville (IQ), Krysti Wiita (Shelley).