Regional Reviews: Phoenix
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 and blues. Tracy Turnblad is a teenager who dreams of dancing on the local afternoon TV teenage dance party, "The Corny Collins Show," and to fall in love with the show's heartthrob Link Larkin. The fact that Tracy is on the heavy 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 heavier 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 a colorful, bright and breezy upbeat musical, but DST's production is mostly flat with a bare-bones set that is incredibly dark and with minimal creativity. One giant, dark wall with various geometric shapes that is present throughout the whole show and two side flats don't evoke any of the necessary locations or the time period of this musical. While some of the cast does fairly well with the vocal demands and comic requirements of the piece, others struggle to hit the high notes, overact somewhat, or fail to deliver even an average performance. There are also sound issues with microphone levels either not set at the same level or not working, which resulted in an abundance of missed dialogue and lyrics at the performance I attended. The lighting is also problematic, with many areas of the stage bright and colorful while others continually dark. Even the ending, which should be incredibly upbeat and bright, finds practically half of the cast in the shadows. The uneven performances and subpar creative elements result in a production without a clear focus.
Fortunately, there are a few good elements to be enjoyed. McKenna Spanko is rambunctious and spunky as Tracy. As Edna, Matthew R. Harris is powerful and poignant. He and Geoffrey Goorin, as Edna's husband Wilbur, deliver a fun and heartwarming "Timeless to Me." As Tracy's friend Penny, Quincy Janisse is excellent with perfect comic timing. As Motormouth Maybelle, Iesha Renee Mills delivers a moving "I Know Where I've Been" while Ava Diane Tyson, as Amber, has the right condescending line delivery and nice vocal chops, and Rob Dominguez, as Corny, instills plenty of charm and a line delivery that shows he's much smarter than he looks.
The young ensemble is energetic and most do well with the fun choreography by Kim Rodriguez. Mickey Courtney's costumes are colorful and evoke the time period of the piece. Also, director Damon Bolling was able to find a large group of minorities to play the African-American parts in the show, which is a big plus, as some other productions I've seen haven't always been able to cast people of color in those parts.
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." DST needs to take the show's message to heart as, with such a beautiful space, and since it's such a great show, it's a shame that I found just about every aspect of this production completely lackluster and without focus.
For more information on Hairspray at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale, which runs through November 5th, 2017, at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre at Fashion Square, 7014 East Camelback Road, Suite 0586, Scottsdale, Arizona 85251, call 480 483-1664 or visit desertstages.org.
Director: Damon J. Bolling