Hairspray, book by Mark OíDonnell and Thomas Meehan, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, Music by Marc Shaiman. Directed by Joe Abraham and Christine Negherbon.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Oh, Oh, Oh..."
As contemporary rock musicals go this is one of the best. The characters are caricatures; the plot is straightforward and would make a great animated short; the songs are memorable and remarkably similar to old songs of the period. What it has going for it is a terrific sense of humor in the writing, reflecting positively on its source material, the film by John Waters. It also has verve, and empathy and sympathy and, when cast right, fabulous singing and dancing. This new production at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York has wonderful performers who can do both of those things and still act the thinnest characters in the world while extolling the beautiful virtues of being fat.
Surely there is no one left who hasnít heard, or seen, something to do with Hairspray. Hopefully it wonít be giving away any top secrets to inform you that the role of the protagonistís mother is played by a man. Thatís been part of the joke since the original movie when a Baltimore drag queen named Divine took on the pivotal role of Edna Turnblad, the mother of teenage Tracy, a fatty who clearly has the genes her mother gave her. In this instance the role is taken by a popular favorite in Chatham, John Saunders. He does a wonderful turn as Edna, transforming from a frumpy housewife who takes in laundry to a glamorous superstar of the media in sequins and satin. In the number "Welcome to the Sixties" the first transformation occurs and it leaves you breathless. Saunders singing voice here leaves a lot to be desired, deep and gravely and almost non-musical. His dancing, however, is a joy to behold.
As her motherís daughter, Elizabeth Froio takes charge of Tracy Turnblad. The show opens with her early morning ablutions and she is clearly talented, but...and here I must be honest, I could not hear her for much of the first act and then for a portion of the second act. This was true for most of the company, even for the loud and specific Karla Shook who can usually be heard in the next town. There was a problem with the amplification and whether technical or human error was involved it diminished the enjoyment of the show.
Tracy is almost never off-stage and as a result we expect a lot of the actress playing her. Froio, who seems to have a lot of talent, worked the show for all it was worth, but on Sunday afternoon it wasnít worth as much as it should be because of this sound problem. Froio is not as physical as her predecessors, at least the ones Iíve seen, in this role. She is not quite as limber as she might be, not quite the spectacular dancer she needs to be and not quite the singer, at least where volume is concerned, as she needed to be.
Her boyfriend, Link was played nicely by Christopher Rice and the role of dance-show host Corny Collins was taken by Ben Jacoby who was absolute perfection. Even better was Christian White as Seaweed J. Stubbs, the black dancer who romances Tracyís best girlfriend, Penny Pingleton. Penny was the sweet and later beautiful Katarina Papacostas.
The villains of the play, the Van Tussle women, were played by Brittany Leslie (Amber, the daughter) and Karla Shook (Velma, the mother). Leslie seemed to swallow a lot of her lines and Shook was the best at playing the worst.
The not-so-surprise sensation of the company, though, was Yvette Clark as Motormouth Maybelle, the black DJ who nearly stopped the show twice with her numbers. She can carry you away without a mike, without accompaniment Iíd bet. She has a powerful instrument and she can handle the funny lines also.
The direction of this show is a bit messy, not aided by the choreography, some of which was deliciously humorous. Costumes were fine, if a bit sketchy for Tracy who could have changed clothing on a "day-to-dayí basis, a fact lost here with a girl who wears the same clothing day after day after day.
This isnít the best "Hairspray" Iíve ever seen, but it wonít be the worst one either. Saunders and Colin Pritchard as Ednaís husband Wilbur almost stopped the show with their very funny love duet "Youíre Timeless to Me."
Is it worth your time: always. If the sound problems are fixed, always plus one. Will you ever go back if they donít fix it, well, the lady with me has avoided this particular theater for seven years and she had a good enough time with "Hairspray" to banish her ban. Sheíll be back. So will I.
Elizabeth Froio as Tracy; photo provided
John Saunders and Colin Pritchard as Edna and Wilbur; photo provided
Yvette Clark as MayBelle; photo provided
Hairspray plays at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 in Chatham, New York through July 20. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-392-9292.