Hard to believe it has been over 10 years since Hairspray first Ponied, Frugged and Mash-Potatoed on Broadway for the first time. A big, bright bouffant of a show, the musical swept the Tony Awards and has been storming community theatre stages across the country ever since.
For this critic, it has meant that I have seen the adventures of Tracy Turnblad on Broadway, on national tour, on film and on semi-pro and amateur productions. I still think it is one of the best film-to-stage musicals in recent years.
The Broad Brook Opera House Players are the latest to tease out Hairspray in the area (with an upcoming production at UConn's Connecticut Repertory Theatre waiting in the wings). Like the company's recent revival of Chicago, also directed by Becky Beth Benedict, The Players' take on this tale of victory over prejudice is a sturdy and serviceable replica of the original.
Benedict's take on the show does not stray far from the Broadway template. This is a good thing for folks who never got to enjoy the show in its 6-year run or national tour. For someone like me who has seen several incarnations, it's a bit disappointing. Even though a theatre does not have the budget to remount the show with all the bells and whistles that were enjoyed by New York audiences, creativity does not cost a thing. Why not take some risks or, better yet, put your own stamp on the show? Perhaps go back to the original 1988 film for some subversive inspiration?
Since the Opera House Hairspray follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessors, it allows for some unfair comparisons. The production's Tracy Turnblad, Catherine Joseph, has all the pep and sharp dancing her part requires, but she is (and how many actresses are ever told this?) not quite chunky enough. The script goes out of its way to say she is rotund and the character is persecuted for it. There has to be an appreciable difference between Tracy and the Corny Collins show dancers that spurn her.
Similarly, her mother Edna Turnblad has to have wandered beyond the boundaries of the largest McCall's pattern. Michael King certainly has a large stature, but he's not really fat. King has a terrific singing voice and comic timing, but he makes few concessions to maternity and femininity (including the Barnum & Bailey clown eye shadow). Edna should not to be played as a man in a dress - she has to be played as a woman, even though the audience is in on the joke.
The cast does have some wonderful performances. Angie Joachim nails her part as the venomous Velma Von Tussle. Nina Rodriguez shows terrific comic chops as Penny, while Rick Fountain, Jr. mines the vaudevillian schtick of Wilbur nicely. Randy Davidson does well by the thinly-written part of the hunky Link, while Ruben Soto sings the pants off the role of Seaweed.
The costumes by Moonyean Field are fine, but miss the mark when it comes to that preening poodle Amber Von Tussle, played by the sassy Mallory Wray (only two uninspiring dresses? Heaven forbid!). The hair, designed by Tony Isham, is a bit of a letdown for a show about teased-up hair hoppers. Tracy's wig-on-wig hasn't been teased (it's been humiliated) and Amber's wig for the finale looks like it was attacked by a badger, causing the actress to fight to be seen.
The energetic choreography by Alison Bogatay is mainly a mimeograph of the Broadway dance moves with some original flourishes. The sound design by Ronald Schallack leaves many of the cast fighting to be heard over the terrific pit orchestra. The lighting design by Diane St. Armand is wonderful when the stage is brightly lit, but moments that rely on a follow spot left the actors sometimes in the dark.
Despite my misgivings, Broad Brook's Hairspray is good fun and entertaining, proving that even a blizzard (causing a delay of the show's opening by two nights) cannot stop the beat.
Hairspray - The Musical
Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by Becky Beth Benedict
Performed by the Opera House Players at the Broad Brook Opera House through February 24. Added performance Wed, February 20th.