Reviewed Performance 8/10/2012
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
BREAKING NEWS: Due to the OVERWHELMING demand for tickets and that all of last week's performances SOLD OUT with waiting lists, The DCT Board voted Monday to ADD AN EXTRA PERFORMANCE!
The ADDED performance is SUNDAY AUGUST 19 at 7:30pm. Ticket prices remain the same. They are taking reservations, but it will be GENERAL SEATING! See end of review where/who to contact to reserve tickets.
RESERVE YOUR TICKETS NOW! DO NOT DELAY! ALL SHOWS ARE CLOSE TO SELLING OUT AGAIN THIS WEEKEND!
With the title Hairspray, you don't know if it will be about the history of the aerosol sticky stuff or a campy send-up of the days when beehives were high and no respectable girl would be caught without a can at the ready. Thankfully for us, the later is the case and the musical, Hairspray, takes audiences back to the days of the first "dance shows" on TV and a remembrance of running home after school to watch your favorite dancer, hear the current tunes and learn the newest dance steps. Remember, this was long before MTV and celebrity "news" shows.
Though Denton Community Theatre does all their shows at Campus Theatre in Denton, it was a particularly perfect space to perform this musical, the last production of their 42nd year. The historic, former 1949 movie theater still has a marquee, traveling neon, outside ticket booths and all. It definitely showed movies of the same era as this musical's time period so that walking into the lobby takes you back in time - I half expected to look down and see myself in pleated skirt, white blouse, ankle socks and saddle shoes!
The theatre proper still holds the feel of a movie theater with its long rows of seats and flat flooring from front to back. Remodeling for the performing arts gave it a lower acoustic ceiling, bright houselights, lighting instruments in the balcony and side boxes, and a thrust stage. But Campus Theatre still has a small proscenium stage which proved to be a challenge with this production.
The original concept for Hairspray was by John Waters, the ever-quirky filmmaker whose stories are most always based in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. Never one to mainstream his films, he writes of the odd, the different, the outcast "regulars" of his neighborhood.
His film about Tracy Turnblad, a plump high school girl in the early 60's who dreams of dancing on her favorite TV dance show, and her desire to integrate the all-white dancers, was met with modest success in 1988 and introduced Ricki Lake. It became a long-running, Tony Award hit on Broadway, running for 7 years and was adapted into the 2007 musical film with John Travolta as Edna Turnblad.
For all the adaptations and variations, the best way to see Hairspray is still on the stage. Nothing can compare to seeing fully choreographed numbers and great songs, eighteen in all and reprises, with a gloriously full orchestra, something rarely used in these days of budget cuts and recorded scores. The musicians were placed behind a white, opaque back scrim which was a shame as it's always nice to see at least the conductor down front, and I imagine the actors/singers would have liked to have him there as well. The songs are a combination of early `60's-style dance music and a more urban R&B beat.
Hairspray is mostly campy and corny with one-liners, puns and innuendoes that might go over the heads of anyone younger than 55. Silly characters and some sillier situations can make one forget that the musical is set just on the edge of the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements. Girls still wore petticoats as the Jackie Kennedy sleek-style was just beginning to immerge. Few women had careers and most moms spent their days at home until the husband returned from work. Kids had few extracurricular activities then and even fewer worries, mostly of the dating, clothing, and hairstyle kind (not much change there!). There was complete social separation of the races and any reference to racial segregation in Hairspray is fleeting and rather taken for granted. A few lines hint at it but you have to be listening to get the messages. One stood out to me - a young white girl is dating an African American high school friend and she says something to the effect that "My mom might be mad at me but she's going to kill you". A subtle, almost throwaway line but its interpretation was loud and clear. Other lines reflect the times and attitudes of our country, 1962, and in his Director notes, Clay White says, "Hairspray is more than an up-beat musical. It carries a message that is still very relevant to today's society". But, again, they are few and somewhat hidden in the folds of the "motion. . and the rhythm".
There are several scene locations within the show and DCT wisely chose to identify them simply. Maybe too simply, as several times a wall panel shook, a rolling set piece moved inappropriately, and the general design was on a more low-budget high school level. An opaque scrim was used as the main curtain, half-revealing the set. As it was pulled down at the beginning, I was curious why designers Clay White and Alex Rodriguez did not simply close the black stage curtains, as they were used later on. Outside the proscenium, far stage right, was the living room of the Turnblads - Wilbur, Edna and Tracy. Crammed into the tiny area were door, chair, portable TV on the floor, phone table, ironing board, and laundry basket. Later on it became the bedroom of Tracy's friend, Penny, with bed rolled in.
The wall panels were decorated with brightly-colored starbursts, hinting at the new space age to come and also signifying the TV dance show, which made their wall confusing. Lots of action and singing took place over there and I applaud the actors for doing their best under such conditions.
Far stage left also had those starbursts on two white panel walls but mainly it was a catch all entrance and exit area. The audience enjoyed the show's opening scene, with Tracy singing while still in bed - a vertical bed with pillow, and blanket attached. The main proscenium stage became the school gymnasium, a jail with propped up or held jail cell bars and The Corny Collins Show studio, complete with its spotlight logo on the proscenium arch. Varied box levels were used as dance platforms but most numbers were moved to the downstage thrust.
Lighting Designer Elizabeth Lambert chose bold colors of aqua, gold, blues and one full stage scene in red to both enhance the bold color choices of the costumes and signify the distorted, almost carnival atmosphere of the TV show. The musical was very bright, very bold, and sometimes unreal.
Marcus Lopez went all out with his costume and wig designs. Possibly using some vintage items and creating others, he chose bold, vibrant shades of neon pink, psychedelic chartreuse and yellow, and bold turquoise and purple for all the dancers, and then repeated them in subtler hues for the family members and high schoolers. The girls' wigs were teased and stacked to the hilt and understated was not acceptable. Conical hairdos, lemon yellow, bright orange and neon pink colorings were the norm and some hair heights were taller than the performer's head - to sing and dance with those "leaning towers" was quite the feat! The only costume and wig pairing that jarred me was Tracy's at the end of the musical for the final song, "You Can't Stop the Beat". The Christmas red glitter dress with boa feathered hem hung on the actress like a gunny sack and her wig reminded me of a vanilla and chocolate double-dip ice cream cone. I must applaud the backstage dressing crews for their tremendous assistance helping the actors get onstage quickly. Layered changes were rapidly made, wigs were interchanged and, except for a couple of late entrances, one unzipped zipper and an open belt, they kept everyone clothed onstage and made it all look easy.
Musical Director Michael Rausch and his Band of Renown (sorry, wrong group), I mean his fifteen piece orchestra were a highlight of the evening. It was so wonderful to hear live music, even if it was coming from the back of the stage. Playing behind the scenes with the singers' backs to you could not be easy to do. As the conductor, he doesn't want to rush them, as sometimes happened, and definitely needs to see what's happening onstage. My hopes were that Rausch had a monitor of the staging area to help guide him - if not, then bravo for keeping the musicians and the action mostly in sync. At times the orchestration overtook the songs and some of the singers' best moments were shadowed by their volume and the fast-paced score. Part overplaying, part sound balance, it was a shame as everyone was working hard to make each song work, and for the most part, they did.
Lots of the joy of Hairspray comes in the choreography of those early `60's "breakout" dance moves, so radical from the typical swaying side to side of a few years earlier. The new dance crazes, mainly created by the urban kids, brought The Twist, Madison, Mashed Potatoes, Monkey, The Stroll, and so many others. I have vivid memories of trying to copy the dancers of our local TV show here, "Sump'n Else", broadcast from NorthPark Center in a storefront studio so you could watch the show live. Those new dances were free and uninhibited and Choreographer Anne Black brought back that freedom with a vengeance. Actors with broad dance experience blended with those who didn't and all of them gave the moves everything they had. I loved that Black placed non-dancer types right up front, if they had any rhythm at all, and just let them go for it. Her numbers were rapid-fire, intricate and tons of fun. To choreograph 20 or more people in such a confined space and give each dance its due was an immense task and both Black and the entire company pulled it off with great style and energy.
With over-simplified sets and many, many dead moments between scenes and dialogue added up to a two and a half hour show on opening night, including intermission. That's lengthy even for die-hard musical mavens and some tightening was certainly in order. The big closing number with the entire company, "Can't Stop the Beat" is a fast song with difficult lyrics. The orchestra got ahead of the singing and dancing, and it took the actors well into the second verse to catch up.
By far, the best thing about DCT's production was the thirty five actors/singers/dancers that made up this production of Hairspray. While there were obvious standout roles and performances, without the nineteen members of the ensemble, the show would not have gone on, as they say. Each ensemble actor kept the story flowing, the pace going, and added both the fun of the campiness and the underlying story of acceptance for all people, no matter who they are or what they look like.
Julie Brinker and Damon Wadyko had the arduous task of playing multiple "authoritative adult" characters and each was a cameo or minor role gem. Brinker's Prudy Pingleton was just that - an uptight, unforgiving mom who couldn't handle the new world order heading her way. Her stereotypical Gym Teacher and jail Matron both brought knowing laughs from the audience, especially when she uttered the same exit line with all three roles (not telling you!). Wadyko's played a neighborhood drunk, the school Principal, Mr. Spritzer, the owner of Ultra Clutch hairspray and sponsor of The Corny Collins Show. His Mr. Pinky, owner of the Hefty Hideaway dress store, was all fluffy, frilly and . . .pink.
Never say small roles don't hold big rewards. As the singing group, Dynamite, Taylor Green, Kacie Rodgers and Sabrina Austin were the epitome of the early girls groups like the Shirelles, the Ronettes, and the Crystals. Clad in matching colors and trendy fashion, they were the reminder of music's changing times and the slight opening of the doors to singers of color.
Similarly, Victoria Belle as Motormouth Maybelle, the record shop owner and host of the once a month "Negro Day" on the TV show, represented the delineation between both the races and the music they listened to. A powerhouse singer, Belle made the fight for equality song, "I Know Where I've Been" all her own and rightfully stopped the show with all the applause.
Gregg Gerardi was Link Larkin (as in missing link), the TV show heartthrob big on looks but not so much on brains. Tracy has a huge crush on him and they duet "It Takes Two" to convince him that their relationship can work. Gerardi's character is also a "link" to integrating the Collins Show and he could easily have played it stupid all the way but instead showed the confusion, the desire and then the resolve of someone who knows what's right and then courageously acts on it.
Little Inez, however, knew exactly what needed to be said and done and she stepped right into the middle each and every time. Zoey Johnson played Seaweed's sister high energy, with spunk and a defined stage presence. Johnson gave her character heart, danced for all her worth and shone bright with less time onstage.
Ken Orman also had less actual time onstage but made every minute count in his role as husband and father, Wilbur Turnblad. Taking the best of both Christopher Walken, who played the role in the musical film, and Christopher Lloyd's Doc from Back to the Future, Orman was the eccentric, goofy father whose family lives above his joke shop. While seeming not quite on the ball, Wilbur knows his daughter's heart and allows her to follow her dreams. Orman is a tall, lanky character actor and had such wonderful, funny body movements. His huge smile never wavered and though not onstage as much as I'd have liked, his portrayal of the fun-loving and subtly wise father stole my heart.
His duet with his much shorter wife Edna (John Garcia) in "You're Timeless to Me" was both hysterical and touching. The reprise of the song broke the two of them up when the audience laughed at a bit of shtick they did. I love when actors break character at their own antics!
Amber Von Tussle, one of the Corny Collins dancers and daughter to the show's producer, is all princess in petticoats with no talent. She demands attention on camera and of her supposed boyfriend Link. Katie Moyes Williams played Amber for all her conceit. Staged down front many times, her character was all white-toothed smile and saccharin when the cameras rolled and a true be-atch off. Williams understood this character very well and used her every minute onstage to reflect Von Tussle's righteous, racist personality. Every musical has one or two characters you love to hate, and William's portrayal fit that bill quite well.
Her character's mother, Velma Von Tussle, was the other one you loved to hate. Always dressed in the same colors each time they were both onstage, the mother-daughter similarity was visually and vocally evident. Maria Harris portrayed Velma like the villainess Cruella De Vil. Singing of her former glory in "Miss Baltimore Crabs", she revealed her insecurities as a career woman in a man's world. Seeing her power wane, she plots her next move in "Velma's Revenge". I was somewhat confused in that, for her solos, Harris both sang and "spoke-sang" the songs yet always ended with a belting, high note finish. Not knowing the score, I wondered if the songs were written that way or if she and the musical director decided on those arrangements. The sound balance had her voice in a channel all its own, coming from the audience's left speakers, which was a bit off putting. Otherwise, her performance was evil and wickedly marvelous.
Penny Pingleton is an odd character in many ways. The best friend of Tracy, she is the passive one, always supportive but reluctant to stand up for what she believes, mainly due to her mother's repression. A character that could easily be understated or ignored, Katelyn Branson kept Penny in focus onstage without over stepping the role. A natural physical comedian, Branson enveloped Ms. Pingleton and hid her character's true self behind her big black eyeglasses. Her transformation at the end of the show was a jaw dropper and several audience members actually gasped. Not having any solos, Branson held her own vocally in the quartet "Without Love" where she declares her love for her young man of color.
As one of the star dancers only allowed on the Collins show once a month with his fellow African American friends, Seaweed J. Stubbs is a pivotal character who is color blind when it comes to loving Penny Pingleton. Along with his mom, Motormouth Maybelle, sister Little Inez, Penny and Tracy, Seaweed helped lead the way to integration on the dance floor and into all their lives. Christopher Portley was simply marvelous as Seaweed, a no-nonsense kind of young man. His cool demeanor, great vocalizations and acting made the audience cheer for his character more than once. Portley had that unique quality of simply being "present" in his acting. Nothing was false, nothing was pushed or overplayed. Seaweed was written as a hero character and Portley was a good actor who knew when to let the character lead.
Tracy's mom, Edna Turnblad, is a woman bigger than most and also bigger than life in personality. A joyful mother, she both roots and frets for her blossoming daughter. A housewife who does others' laundry to supplement the bills, she hasn't left the house in years and wears her housedress, thin open robe and slippers day in and day out.
Down deep, however, lies a woman who dreams of more and John Garcia's portrayal played into that quite effectively. Not allowing Edna to be mere drag or buffoonery, he instead chose to be Tracy's mom first and let the comedic role come second. Any actor playing Edna, both onstage and in film, has been ensconced in a suit of "boobs and butt" and Garcia's padding was no different. He did a good job working with the accoutrements, making the suit a part of his own body and his movements realistic. A man in the audience in front of me said at intermission, "He had all the moves down" - quite a nice compliment from someone who obviously knows a large woman's physique! Edna, like Penny, is a passive lady who, through the course of the musical, gets caught up in her resolve and courageously transforms into her true self. A change of hairstyle and clothes in "Welcome to the 60's" and Garcia brought Edna to life with the sense of a woman who is recognizing her own power. The subtle chest wiggles and not so subtle posterior moves both showed his comedic prowess and Edna's coming out, so to speak.
Besides the show-stopping duet "You're Timeless to Me" with Wilbur (Ken Orman), Edna goes full out diva with boa gown, jewels, glitter, higher than high hairdo and the great "Can't Stop the Beat".
Garcia's little embarrassed giggles and naive demeanor endeared Edna to the audience. One of his best songs, and for that matter all and moms and daughters, was "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now". Three sets of mother-daughters, each arguing and battling to get their opinions across, the song was a highlight yet maybe a little too close to home for me! Garcia plays Edna for real and that makes his performance all the more memorable.
Ever the conceited and quirky MC and name-sake of the dance show, Corny Collins is all suave, but in a creepy John Walters sort of way. Slick-backed hair and bright, eye-blinking suit coat, he captains the show as well as his female producer, Velma. He knows the show is nothing without him and commands the power. Yet Collins is also aware of the coming changes and works with both Tracy and some of the dancers to help those needed changes take place, all the while keeping his "cool" intact. Tyler Donahue played the slightly smarthy Collins with great aplomb. Always the showman, Corny Collins and Donahue knew just when to lead a scene or song and when to let others take the focus. Singing with the dancers or Council Kids, he had some of the best songs. From the rather exclusive "Nicest Kids in Town" to the great song and dance number "The Madison", and ending with the Miss Hairspray contest song "(It's) Hairspray", Donahue kept the songs lively, the numbers crisp, and his character oh so groovy.
The main instigator of all the trouble, upheaval and ultimate change in Hairspray comes from one girl on a mission. Tracy Turnblad, dreamer and early activist, is a true idealist who doesn't understand why everyone can't get along and just dance. This one girl powerhouse must be played by someone with onstage charisma, big personality and stamina. All that and more was wrapped up inside Ashley Taylor Martin. Her Tracy was upbeat, perky, hopeful and determined and Martin's every scene and song was right on the mark. Quick changes of costumes and scenes did not faze her.
Her scenes with Garcia were endearing and realistic, as were those with Seaweed. Martin made sure Tracy wasn't too sugary or cute and her portrayal was simple and true.
From her opening bedroom number "Good Morning Baltimore", Martin reeled the audience in to her and never lost them.
The quaint and cute "I Can Hear the Bells" showed Tracy's dreamer quality, "Welcome to the 60's" her transformation, and "Without Love" Tracy's commitment to her friends and loved ones. Martin more than held her own onstage and as a pivotal character in Hairspray, led the entire company in a worthy production.
Opening night's audience was enthusiastic and laughed easily and long. Most got the underlying story and I overheard some discussing it as we waited outside.
Another audience member told his companions, "I've seen all their shows and this is the best one".
The whole show was delightful, poignant and left those around me joyful and well-entertained. Denton Community Theatre hopefully has a financial hit on their hands - the next night was already sold out. If you're a fan of the original movie or later musical film, then it's worth your while to see Hairspray live with this talented group and in a nice theatre that will take you back in time.
Denton Community Theatre
Campus Theatre, 214 W. Hickory, Denton, TX 76201
Limited run through August 19th
Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm
Tickets are $20.00 regular, $18.00 seniors (62+) and $10.00 children/students thru college.
Please go to www.campustheatre.com for information and to make reserved seat reservations. You can also call the box office at 940-382-1915 or 800-733-7014, Monday-Friday 1:00pm - 5:00pm.