Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Hairspray Lacks Hold at Seattle Musical Theatre

Also see David's review of Annie Get Your Gun

Jay Irwin
I was lucky enough to be in the opening night audience of the pre-Broadway tryout of the mega-hit to be Hairspray at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre nearly a decade back. My review at the time referred to some technical gremlins that bedeviled the otherwise wonderful new show. This consisted of one, count it, one change of scene that didn't go smoothly. So they stopped the show, re-wound to the previous cue and continued blissfully on, earning a hand from the sell-out crowd. Last night, seeing the first homegrown production of Hairspray by Seattle Musical Theatre, those gremlins were afoot en masse, as an otherwise engaging show was forced to muster the will to carry on in spite of them. A few examples? The leading lady's microphone popped and crackled like Rice Krispies for a good part of act one, scenic change and lighting cues were frequently late, a delayed entrance on the part of a cast member was covered by, well, nothing, as inexperienced cast members mouthed conversations through an interminable stage wait. Quite simply, thanks to these sorts of gaffes, which should have been dealt with in tech, Hairspray failed to blow the roof off the Sand Point Way theatre, as it quite rightly should have.

Having said that, I can imagine a much improved rendition of the Tony Award winning musical is likely to greet future audiences, if said gremlins are attended to. Director Vincent Orduna understands the material and style, and to a large extent imparts it to his game cast. It doesn't hurt that Hairspray is one of the two or three best written musicals of the past ten years, with a laughter and tears laden script by Mark O' Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and a truly tuneful and joyous prime pastiche musical score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. It softens the edges of the cult-classic John Waters film ever so slightly to make for a musical with a strong stance on desegregation and bias against large-sized folks. This is a musical a mother, Jewish or otherwise, can love, and friendly enough to bring the whole family to.

Set in early 1960s Baltimore, plus sized high school underachiever Tracy Turnblad sees her dreams come true as she is selected to be a cast member on "The Corny Collins Show," an "American Bandstand" type daily TV dance party, where she can be near the Elvis-wannabe of her dreams, Link Larkin. Her working class parents Edna and Wilbur are guardedly supportive, her best friend Penny is staunch (if vacant) by her side, and she wins over the African-American community by spearheading a move to crack the racial barrier on Corny's show. Even the vixenish viper Velma Von Tussle who runs the show and her insipid clone of a daughter Amber are no challenge to the wave of social change unleashed by Tracy and company.

Kate Moyer is a perfectly zaftig Tracy, with a voice for days. Once miking issues were finally solved, she settled into a pleasant performance that amped up as the story stakes got higher. With some of the best songs in the show thrown her way ("Good Morning Baltimore" and I Can Hear the Bells" to name two) and a very likable presence, one can expect her to relax into the kind of effortless, center of the show star she seems capable of becoming, when production pitfalls aren't conspiring against her. Kody Bringman has an ease and charm about him as Tracy's one and only Link, and they sparkle when they share the duet "Without Love." Jay Irwin is so cozily maternal as Edna, Tracy's XXX-large sized mama that one starts to forget it's a drag role. He also engagingly employs a few tips of the pill-box hat to Broadway original Harvey Fierstein, though Irwin's own voice is rather more lilting to the ear than Fierstein's. As Edna's husband and Tracy's amiable goof of a father, Jon Thumin is a bit low wattage but musters up some borscht belt charm for his "Timeless to Me" duet with Irwin.

Christine Riipi is a veritable queen of mean as a towering Velma Von Tussle, and her self-confidence and bravura acting were a highlight of opening night, with kudos as well to the queen bee in training arrogance of Carly Hodges as daughter Amber. Mindy Beal is inconsistently dim as Tracy's pal Penny, but Brian Schaeffer is smooth and natural as her African-American beau Seaweed, and diminutive dynamo Camille Collaco is a star waiting for a star role as his kid sister Little Inez. Jeff Orton has a good handle on his Corny Collins, a sort of diminutive Dick Clark, shaken and stirred with James Darren. As Seaweed's warm-hearted, soul of the community mother Motormouth Maybelle, Stacie Calkins has real star presence and the standout voice in the show, really making her two big numbers "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" and "I Know Where I've Been" stand-out crowd pleasers. Colleen Gillon is amusing as Penny's daft mother Prudy, and Michael Giles takes a fresh comic approach to several small roles, and is particularly amusing as the befuddled "Corny Collins Show" sponsor.

Phil Lacey has injected real zip and originality into his choreography, handling an ensemble with varying skill sets well. Caleb Dietzel's sound design has quite a ways to go as, well as beyond miking matters, there was poor balance between the vocalists on stage and the talented musicians in the band, conducted by musical director Josh Zimmerman. The show's costumes are a campy, candy-coated dream thanks to the theatrical savvy and clear understanding of sixties fashions from designer John Allbritton. Richard Schaeffer's lighting design was really shortchanged by the parade of late cues, making it hard to judge, while the idea of the scenic design, credited to Schaefer, Shaver and Peterson, being the show all takes place in a TV studio, seems suspiciously akin to that used in the scenic design of the newer Shaiman and Wittman tuner Catch Me If You Can, though if handled more adeptly it might have worked. As it is, it comes off simply looking a bit on the threadbare side.

There is really no reason this Hairspray can't be the kind of pure entertainment it ought to be. And that it would have been, had the technical end of the show measured up to the best of the cast on opening night.

Hairspray runs through December 11 at Magnuson Park Community Building in North Seattle. For reservations and more go to

Photo: Seattle Musical Theatre

- David Edward Hughes

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