"Hairspray" Theatre By The Sea Matunuck, RI July 22, 2011
Jay Leland Krottinger (4th from right) as Corny Collins is joined by (front row from left) Nicole Calabrese, Jamie Markovich, Derek Johnson (kneeling), Rosalie Burke, Jimmy Larkin, Arielle Kook (kneeling), Emily Brockway, (back row from left) James Wells, Mike Baskowski and Zach Trimmer as “The Nicest Kids on Town” on The Corny Collins Show in "Hairspray" at Theatre By The Sea (Mark Turek photo)
If your discretionary spending cash is tight, here's a can't-miss value that's worth every penny. The fun, fast-moving musical comedy "Hairspray" at Theatre By The Sea in Matunuck, RI is what music theatre should be. And what any good hairspray should be: a little tacky with plenty of hold! That is, it's delightlfully tacky in the outre style of the John Waters movie the musical is based on yet it has plenty of heart and significance, the glue is the important social issues it confronts through characters you really care about.
Ocean State Theatre Company, the production entity of Theatre By The Sea, has produced another winner, with Russell Garrett directing as well as choreographing the fabulous dancing that's a big part of this show. Scenic Designer Bert Scott and Costume Designer Marcia Zammarelli must be applauded as well for their eye-catching design work.
It's another polished production from a theatre that's a consistent winner. Their season-opening "Putnam County Spelling Bee" was a sheer delight and "Hairspray" is even more fun, with more dancing and teenage enthusiasm, like "Spelling Bee's" slightly older sibling. In between was the classic "Man Of La Mancha." Yet to come later in the season are "The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps."
I can appreciate a serious drama and even some of the deadly-serious musicals that have become popular in recent years. But give me a free-wheeling night at the theatre with memorable songs, dazzling dancing, appealing actors and an uplifting story anytime. Sometimes it's easy to take for granted just how good a production is when there isn't a false step to remind you that what you're seeing is real-life, real-time, real people performing. "Hairspray" is just that good.
Erin McCracken stars as Tracy Trunblad (Mark Turek photo)
From the opening moments, we get a sense of what "Hairspray" is all about. It's seems as if you're a spider on the ceiling looking down at teenaged Tracy Turnblad (Erin McCracken) waking up in her bed in the morning in 1962 Baltimore, one of many times the set designer plays with our perspective and POV. Tracy's room is all bright, candy colors, as is virtually everything in the show, a pure confection for the eyes. She belts out "Good Morning Baltimore," which quickly gets us up to speed on her teenage life and ambitions.
Tracy and her best friend, Penny (a delightfully dippy Alexa Shanahan, a Rhode Island native) religiously watch their favorite TV dance program, "The Corny Collins Show," and while they're watching at one side of the stage, we're seeing the program live on the other. The tremendously talented, young cast wows with their first dance number "The Nicest Kids In Town." The costumes are so spot-on, the hairstyles (wigs for all the women), perfect.
Tom Gleadow and Erin McCracken (Mark Turek photo)
It's announced that the Corny Collins show is auditioning new dancers which sets the plot in motion as Tracy fervently wants to be on the program and to meet her heartthrob, Link, one of the show's regulars. Her mother, Edna, and father, Wilber are hot-and-cold on the idea: mom thinks they'll reject Tracy for being "pleasingly plump" but dad tells her to follow her dreams. Edna is the show-stealing role, originated in the Waters film by drag star Divine, originally played in the stage musical by Harvey Firestein and in the recent film by John Travolta. Rhode Islander Tom Gleadow is uproariously fine in the role for TBTS, funny but also bringing some heart to the big gal and not just playing it for laughs.
Sean McGuirk supplies a winsome gravitas as Wilber. McGuirk, who has worked in some major Broadway shows and high-budget films ("The Departed," "Amistad"), trod the boards at TBTS in "Shenandoah" in 1978. He performs a wonderful soft-shoe with his missus (Gladow) near the end that's so damn funny that the veteran was breaking up on stage, having to hide his mug behind Edna's substantial girth.
Although it's ostensibly all about Tracy wanting to be a dancer on TV and falling in love with a boy, "Hairspray" becomes about much more as it tackles not just her body-image issues, but racism in early 1960s America. Tracy makes friends with some African-American students in detention hall, learns some new dance moves that help her get on the show, and then tries to get her new friends on as regulars, too, not just ghettoized on the show's monthly "Negro Day."
So while the show is a heart-warming lesson in accepting your self in your own skin, it's about accepting others, in whatever color their skin may be.
Sean McGuirk, Tom Gleadow, Yvette Monique Clark, Antonio Tillman, J. Stubbs, Alexa Shanahan and (back from left) Antuan Raimone, Lisa Finegold, Sydni Beaudoin and Kimberly Lowe (Mark Turek photo)
I won't spoil your fun by saying much more, but needless to say, the important social discussions are never heavy-handed, but are always fun and work within the framework of the show, which moves along at lightning speed with terrific music, sensational singing and kinetic dancing.
Every story's got to have a heavy (and I'm not talking about Edna here, but a villain) and here it's "Corny Collins" producer Velma Von Tussle (Rebecca Gibel) and her Barbie-doll daughter, Amber (Rosalie Burke), two tart-tongued vixens who taunt our Tracy and represent the racism that was prevalent in society at the time. And we see that their racism is based not so much on hate, but fear. Ms. Gibel is outstanding is the lady-we-love-to-hate, performing a few show-stopping numbers as the vamp.
Yvette Monique Clark encompasses the soul of the civil rights movement as Motormouth Maybelle, who sums up racism with the terse "a whole lotta ugly comin' at you in a never-ending parade of stupid." She galvanizes the teens to effect big changes at their own considerable personal risk. Clark takes "Hairspray" over the top in two great set pieces, "Big, Blonde and Beautiful," which sums up the body-image element of the story, and "I Know Where I've Been," a gospel-like anthem to civil rights.
If you like "Grease" (and who doesn't?) you'll love "Hairspray." Same era, similar music and dancing, lots of teenage exuberance, ebullience and energy.
Underdog girl meets boy. Girl kisses boy. Girl changes history and shocks the world. What's not to like?
Enjoy a summer night at Theatre By The Sea with this thoroughly entertaining show through August 13. The theatre is located at 364 Cards Pond Road in Matunuck, RI, a short drive from the Connecticut border. Tickets are $39 - $54, a bargain. Rush tickets are available on a limited basis one hour prior to curtain on the day of the performance.
Call the box office at (401) 782-TKTS or visit them online.