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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Arizona Broadway Theatre

Also see Gil's review of The Importance of Being Earnest

Deidra Grace, Emmeline Wood, Richard Koons-Wagoner and Vanessa Dunleavy
Hairspray may just be the best musical comedy to have opened on Broadway in the last fifteen years. 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, it pretty much hits all the right marks. Sure, there have been much bigger musical comedy hits in the past decade like The Producers and Book of Mormon, but unlike Mormon and to a lesser extent The Producers, Hairspray is a show that you can easily take your grandparents to without them being offended. The original Broadway production of Hairspray won eight Tony awards including Best Musical as well as one for Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's toe tapping, rhythm & blues and pop inspired score. The production that just opened the 2013-2014 season at Arizona Broadway Theatre has a great cast, good direction and is a perfect kick off to ABT's 9th season.

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, afternoon TV dance shows were a must see for any cool kid, and music was changing from soft pop to rock and rhythm & blues. Tracy Turnblad is a teenager who dreams of dancing on the local teenage dance show "The Corny Collins Show" and falling 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 finds her way onto the program, becomes an overnight celebrity and spokesperson, and, more importantly, makes it her mission 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 production at Arizona Broadway Theatre is colorful, well cast and joyous from start to finish. ABT Resident Choreographer Kurtis W. Overby directs this production and has assembled a terrific cast that includes Victoria Lynn Socci as Tracy and Richard Koons-Wagoner as Edna. The idea of a man playing the part of Tracy's mother Edna goes back to the original 1988 film in which John Waters staple Divine played the part. Both Socci and Koons-Wagoner are more than up to the challenge to not only completely embody these roles but also to, in very short time, make you forget both Ricki Lake and Divine who played the mother/daughter duo in the film and Tony winners Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein who originated the parts in the 2002 Broadway production.

While Socci slimmer than any of the actresses I've seen play this role before, she still manages to make Tracy the outsider, one that any of us who has ever felt like an outsider can easily identify with. Her singing, dancing and especially her acting are top notch. She throws herself into the part, and her dance moves alone made me chuckle several times. Koons-Wagoner is hilarious as Edna. His acting and singing chops are perfect for the part; he's probably the best sung Edna of the five I've seen, and he and Socci are quite touching as this mother/daughter duo with a mission.

The ensemble cast hits all the right marks as well with every one of the actors not only good musically but excellent actors as well. Sal Pavia is perfect as Link, his singing and dancing all in line with the heartthrob nature of the character. Wade Moran is touching, quirky and loving as Tracy's nerdy father Wilbur. Moran and Koons-Wagoner also make a great yet extremely mismatched husband and wife with the beanpole Moran a mere shadow of his onstage wife.

Tracy's best friend Penny is hilariously played by Trisha Hart Ditsworth, and Tracy's rivals Amber and her mother Velma couldn't be better cast than they are with Emmeline Wood and Vanessa Dunleavy. They both throw themselves into these villainous parts with glee. As Tracy's new friends Seaweed and his mother Motormouth Maybelle, the host of the one "Negro Day" a month that the "Corny Collins Show" airs, it doesn't get much better than Antonio Tillman and Deidra Grace. Tillman's dancing is amazing and Grace's vocal abilities are superb as is her acting. Her rousing, showstopper act two song "I Know Where I've Been" brought the house down. One caveat—Motormouth speaks in rhymes and Grace could work just a bit on the cadence of her delivery to make the rhymes really pop.

Ryan Michael Crimmins makes a perfect Corny Collins, who is serious enough in not being afraid to stand up to Velma but also comical enough to deliver some of the book's "cornier" jokes. A special mention needs to be made of both Lynzee Jaye Paul 4Man and Sam Ramirez who play multiple parts in the show, each one a hilarious gem. Cassandra Klaphake has done a really great job in casting the entire production.

Director Overby and Shelley Jenkins provide a neverending amount of dancing for this production, all wonderfully in tune with the period of the show. I also really like how effectively the ensemble is used not only throughout the various musical, comical and dramatic moments of the show but during the various scene changes as well. Set designer Paul Black and costume designer Morgan Andersen have both contributed A-level design elements with some lovely Technicolor themed drops and sets and a neverending parade of colorful costumes. Tracy, Edna and Penny's act two finale costumes are especially inspired.

While director and co-choreographer Overby is to be commended on what he's been able to accomplish with this production there are a few jokes in Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's Tony winning book that fall flat due to them being over-rushed or not delivered correctly. Overby should give a few notes to his cast members about that, as every joke in this book is a winner. A few other minor quibbles—there were some technical glitches at the opening night performance including some microphone, sound and lighting mishaps as well as more than a few times when a some of the ensemble members weren't in synch on the choreography. I attribute this to the vast amount of choreography in the show and, again, it being opening night. I can only imagine with a few performances under their belts the ensemble will be more solidified.

Still, even with just those few small negative points, ABT's production of Hairspray isn't to be missed.

Hairspray runs through November 10th at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at or by calling (623) 776-8400

Hairspray. Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Stage Direction: Kurtis W. Overby
Choreography: Shelley Jenkins and Kurtis W. Overby
Music Direction: Adam Berger
Lighting Design: Tim Monson
Scenic Design: Paul Black
Costume Design: Morgan Andersen
Sound Design: Jason Lynn
Stage Management: Ally Burnham
Artistic Producer and Casting: Cassandra Klaphake
Executive Producer: Kiel Klaphake

Victoria Lynn Socci: Tracy Turnblad
Richard Koons: Edna Turnblad
Sal Pavia: Link Larkin
Wade Moran: Wilbur Turnblad
Trisha Hart Ditsworth: Penny Pingleton
Antonio Tillman: Seaweed J. Stubbs
Deidra Grace: Motormouth Maybelle
Vanessa Dunleavy: Velma Von Tussle
Emmeline Wood: Amber Von Tussle
Ryan Michael Crimmins: Corny Collins
Britt Mack: Little Inez
Sam Ramirez: Male Authority Figure
Lynzee Jaye Paul 4Man: Female Authority Figure
Chanel Bragg: a Dynamite
Ashley D. Kelley: a Dynamite
Anne-Lise Koyabe: a Dynamite
With Chica Loya, Michelle Chin, Lauren Morgan, Hannah Bentley, AJ Hunsucker, John Cardenas, Michael Thompson, Scott Shedenhelm, Kenny D. Washington and EJ Dohring

Photo: Arizona Broadway Theatre

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix