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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Mesa Community College

Also see Gil's reviews of Seasons of Broadway, Valhalla and Carnival of Illusion

Laynee Overall and Jere Van Patten
Mesa Community College just opened their beautiful new Performing Arts Center's Main Stage with the fun, infectious musical Hairspray. The Tony winning Best Musical is receiving an upbeat production from the College's Act One Musical Productions group, with several hilarious performances, fun and colorful creative elements, and skilled direction.

Based on the 1988 John Waters movie of the same name, Hairspray is set in 1962 Baltimore at a time when racial integration was at a crossroads, TV dance shows were a must see for any cool kid, and music was changing from soft pop to rock and rhythm and blues. Tracy Turnblad is a teenager who dreams of dancing on the local afternoon TV teenage dance show "The Corny Collins Show" and to fall in love with the show's heartthrob Link Larkin. The fact that Tracy is on the hefty side and everyone else on the show resembles Ken and Barbie doesn't detract Tracy from going after her dreams when a spot on the show opens up. And even though her even heftier mother Edna tries to make Tracy realize that she might get laughed at and ridiculed for her weight, Tracy decides to audition for the show with a plan to integrate the program. This is something at odds with Velma, the racist producer of the show, and her daughter Amber, who just happens to be Link's girlfriend.

Hairspray is not only a great musical but a touching social commentary on race, anti-bullying and how, as the musical states a couple of times, you've got to "think big to be big."

The original Broadway production won eight Tony awards including Best Musical as well as one for Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's toe tapping, rhythm and blues and pop inspired score. Due to the show's age appropriate characters it seems Hairspray is one of the most produced plays in high schools and colleges, and the gifted MCC students bring the story and characters to humorous life with relative ease. Director Jere Van Patten has not only cast a serious triple threat as Tracy but also is playing Edna in one of the best portrayals of the character I've seen.

With a pure, rich, powerful voice, Laynee Overall sends Tracy's numerous songs soaring out over the new auditorium. She manages to make Tracy the outsider that everyone can identify with but also a fun, upbeat girl anyone would want as their friend. Overall also gets just about all of Tracy's many comic lines and moments right, including having a fun time showing Tracy's wild dance moves. Van Patten is a gem as Edna. The fact that a man is playing the part of Tracy's mother goes back to the original 1988 film where John Waters staple Divine played the part. Harvey Fierstein won a Tony playing Edna on Broadway. Yet Van Patten manages to bring his own grace and style to the part, including delivering perfect comical moments and even some gorgeous vocals. The only downside to his portrayal? He's probably the best looking Edna I've ever seen. Van Patten and Overall also work well at making their mother/daughter relationship seem both loving and feisty, creating a realistic portrayal.

The rest of the cast works well to bring the somewhat stereotypical characters to life. Jesse Thomas Foster is a delight as Tracy's oddball, quirky and loving father Wilbur. Foster and Van Patten are hilarious together, and their duet "Timeless to Me" is full of sweet sincerity with just a few risqué moments to show the characters are in love and still desire each other. The number is a complete knock out.

While Foster is a student, two of the other main adult parts in the show are played by adult actors with polished vocals and acting abilities. As Motormouth Maybelle, the host of the one "Negro Day" a month that the Corny Collins show airs, Tierra Jones is a joy. Her rousing, showstopper act two song "I Know Where I've Been" brings the house down. Alaina Beauloye throws herself into the villainous part of Velma with glee. However, not all of the younger supporting cast are as clear in their line delivery or vocals as Jones and Beauloye, with a few stepped on lines, rushed jokes and missed comical nuances in Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's expertly written book. This was their first performance of the show with an audience, so I expect they have gotten more comfortable with more performances, plus they all sing well and are having fun playing these fun characters.

Director Van Patten and choreographer Cambrian James work together seamlessly to provide a never-ending amount of movement and dance to the production, with James' choreography infectious. Van Patten does have a very large ensemble cast, and at times the stage does get a bit crowded, but he also stages a few moments out in the audience where the large cast can be more effective and vibrant without being too cramped.

Set designer Dori Brown and costume designer Aurelie P. Flores have both contributed superb design elements to the production. Brown's interlocking city street set is perfect as are her other scenic elements that combine large drops and set pieces to form more lush settings than just a single drop or solo set piece that some companies would use. Flores' costumes are colorful and elaborate, with some spectacular designs for Edna. Troy Buckey's lighting is just about perfect, with the added touch of some nice designs on the backdrop, though the use of spot lights for some of the musical moments was delayed or simply unnecessary. Cathy Hauan's superb music direction brings the lush ensemble melodies and harmonies to life, and her direction of the orchestra provides a rich, lush sound.

With an infectious score, a very accessible and hilarious book, characters you can easily identify with, and a social message at the center that is still relevant today, Hairspray pretty much hits all the right marks for a crowd pleasing show. The MCC production of this joyous musical is just as fun and infectious, with beautiful creative touches, assured direction, and several excellent performances including Van Patten and Overall as a winning mother/daughter team.

Hairspray runs through November 22nd, 2014, at the Mesa Community College Performing Arts Center. Tickets can be ordered at 480-461-7172 or at

Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Stage Direction: Jere Van Patten
Choreography/ Wig & Hair Design: Cambrian James
Scenic Design: Dori Brown
Costume Design: Aurelie P. Flores
Music Direction: Cathy Hauan
Lighting Design:
Sound Design: Rebecca Barney
Stage Manager: Anya Bregman

Cast: (in order of appearance)
Tracy Turnblad: Laynee Overall
Corny Collins: Tedd Glazebrook
Amber Von Tussle: Kamie Tierce
Brad: Michael Frioli
Tammy: Sammie Sanchez
Fender: Brian Robertson
Brenda: Katie McCarthy
Sketch: Nathan Taylor
Shelley: Brandy Reed
IQ: Patrick Harrigan
Lou Ann: Danie Grief
Link Larkin:
Brian Vasher
Prudy Pingleton/Gym Teacher/Matron: Hannah Singleton
Edna Turnblad: Jere Van Patten
Penny Pingleton: Ariana Mai Lucius
Velma Von Tussle: Alaina Beauloye*
Harriman F. Spritzer/Principal/Mr. Pinky/Guard: Kyle Chivara
Wilbur Turnblad: Jesse Thomas Foster
Seaweed J. Stubbs: Michael Jones
Duane: Marcus Wolf
Gilbert: Lazarus Tate
Lorraine: Sunny Price
Thad: Reggie Graham
Dynamites: C'veah Davis, Viva Valdez, Zoe Zamora
Little Inez: Adrineh Stephenson
Motormouth Maybelle: Tierra Jones
Denizens of Baltimore: Rachel Heitkamp, Alexa Moody, Isaac Dowdle

*Member Actors Equity Association

Photo: Allyson Van Patten

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix