‘Run and Tell That’: It’s Irrefutable – Chance Theater’s ‘Hairspray’ is Big, Bright and Beautiful
by Leo Buck
“What gives a gal power and punch? Is it charm? Is it poise? No it’s ‘Hairspray’!” Now the award-winning Chance Theater at the Bette Aiken Theater Arts Center in Anaheim, California is presenting this ‘mother’ of all musicals as their main stage summer offering for 2015! Based on the film from cult movie Legend John Waters, the book is by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and music by Marc Shaiman. The winner of eight 2003 Tony Awards (among them, “Best Musical”) The Chance puts audience members in the center of the action with a more intimate staging of this vibrant celebration of rock n’ roll, revolution, and one determined adolescent’s dream to change the world–and it loses nothing in the transition.
The time is 1962: Baltimore, where full-figured, big-bouffanted teen “Tracy Turnblad” wants to dance! Despite her equally plus-sized mother “Miss Edna”, trying to discourage the girl’s ambitions, young Tracy’s passion for life is as broad as her waist-measurement, and although “her mom tells her no, her feet tell her go!” Luckily, when the opportunity to dance on “The Corny Collins Show” arises, she jumps at it, and soon her talent gains the admiration of most everyone–particularly the show’s juvenile heart-throb, “Link Larkin”. Of course, not all are thrilled with the decision to have her on the show; the station’s ‘blue-blooded’ manager, “Velma Von Tussle”, whose own daughter “Amber” is slated for the program’s “star-spot” (not to mention Link’s affections,) will stop at nothing to get Tracy bounced, especially since she has the audacity (–gasp–) to want to abolish any racial barriers among the cast to include her African-American pals, “Seaweed” and “Little Inez”. (“So my dear, so short and stout–you’ll never be ‘in’ so we’re kicking you out!” she’s told.) Sounding the charge “Two, Four, Six, Eight, TV’s got to integrate!” you can bet your most cherished pair of “Cha-Cha Heels” the results will be larger even than Miss Edna’s prodigious dress-size!
Utilizing various playing spaces throughout the theater, Director Kari Hayter makes full use of the Chance’s ample auditorium, in essence casting the viewers as the ‘studio audience’ for “The Corny Collins Show” and all the related goings-on. This makes for a livelier, more ‘immersive’ experience, thus a more satisfying one as well. What’s more, she keeps the pace surprisingly quick without sacrificing any significant comic or ‘message’ moments the show boasts. O’Donnell and Meehan’s clever script positively crackles with witty one-liners referencing 1960’s pop-culture, and also features more than a few nods to John Waters other films along with a well-placed homage (or two) to the classic musical “Gypsy”. Co-Choreographed by Kelly Todd and Christopher M. Albrecht, under their collective guidance, nobody merely ‘walks” in this show when they can ‘bop’! Similarly making the most from the theater’s overall amplitude, the innovative staging of the show’s copious dance sequences have all been masterfully adapted to accommodate three-dimensions, and the outcome is a magnificent pastiche of vintage moves painting terpsichorean pictures that are far greater than the sum of their parts! This, after all, is a show that from its very inception was built around the often offbeat “fad” dances of the early/mid 1960’s (with the actual civil rights story coming along shortly thereafter,) so the dance elements have to be striking. Happily, they live up to–and surpass–expectation! Furthermore, Todd and Albrecht incorporate numerous element from those period dances like the ‘Monkey’, ‘Pony’, ‘Madison’, and the ‘Twist’ (look extra close and you’ll even find a few ballet moves thrown in as well!) They also effectively invent several new steps like the ‘Stricken Chicken’ or Amber’s concluding salvo “Cooties”, all of which hearken back to all those great (or sometimes ridiculous) fleeting dance crazes that kids emphatically had to keep up with to be considered “in”. Kudos also to Matt Scarpino for his ultra-contemporary cubistic scenic design and Bradley Lock’s incredible (and excruciatingly accurate) costume design which colorfully recall the many shades of this fast-changing time in our nation’s history.
Featuring a sizable and diverse multi-ethnic cast (–one of the largest ever for a musical at the Chance–) this is decidedly a ‘chorus” show and every one of the hard-working ensemble do a first-rate job filling out, filling in, and invigorating each big number, making them ignite with energy and enthusiasm! “Welcome to the 60’s” is a grand-slam for the entire ensemble early on; they also work some formidable stage magic with their combined parts in the first act closer, “Big, Blonde And Beautiful”. Act Two picks up in “The Big Doll House” after Tracy and company have been arrested for trying to crash Corny’s ‘very special “Mother-Daughter” day at the TV station. It sure is a real rouser after intermission though, relaunching things in a humorous and spirited way. Everything culminates in a foot-stomping, roof-raising truly “Grand” finale, that, at its heart is a terrific socially-responsible turn on all those great old “Let’s Have A Show” movies!
Plucky Taylor Hartsfield stars as Tracy Turnblad, the plus-sized high-school senior who only wants to dance on local TV’s top-rated teen dance program, “The Corny Collins Show”. In Miss Hartsfield’s capable hands, Tracy is an exuberant, completely likable lass whose biggest flaw isn’t her physical size, but rather (initially) trying too hard to impress ‘the popular crowd” (“I’m teasing my hair as high as I can” she laments after being refused an audition just on the basis of her looks; “Is there no pity for a teen just trying to fit in?!”) Yet this makes her ultimate journey toward emotional maturity and development of a social conscience all the more brave and gratifying (“I just think it’s stupid that we all can’t dance together” she declares guilelessly.) This girl also has a tremendous voice and some pretty savvy dance moves for which she’s given plenty of opportunities to showcase. “I Can Hear The Bells” is a terrific solo, as is her stirring reprise of “Good Morning Baltimore” (—sung from within a jail cell,) which sets the tone for better things to follow. Moreover, Joe Tish is “Divine” as her “mother” Edna Turnblad—“a simple housewife of indeterminate girth”. As much as this is Tracy’s story, “Edna” still plays a (literally) huge part in it. Possessing a boisterous baritone and impeccable comic timing, Tish makes the most of this vocal incongruity to garner some pretty solid laughs, amazing with such numbers as “Welcome To The 60’s” (Edna’s first time outside the safety of her apartment in years) then later, joined by Robin Walton as “her” husband “Wilbur” with their thoroughly delightful “love” duet, “You’re Timeless To Me” (“Some folks can’t stand it–say time is a bandit, but I take the opposite view, ‘cause when I need a lift, time brings a gift–another day with you!” they bill-and-coo to one another.)
Sarah Pierce too, reveals an expressive voice and laudable comedic skills, making her mark as Tracy’s timid, plain-Jane best-friend Penny Pingleton, who blossoms into a pretty and confident “checker-board chick” in love with “Seaweed”, amiably played by Xavier J. Watson. “Seaweed” himself demonstrates some catchy steps and sultry gyrations, and Watson’s lead in “Run And Tell That” is “Groovy” with a ‘hip and happening’ ‘G’! Likewise, LaJoi Whitten is an absolute revelation as his mother, “Motormouth Maybelle”. Although her finest moments occur later in the show, throughout, she’s everything this character should be: strong, serene, balanced, but capable of conveying genuine passion and urgency when required, as during the production’s dynamic “11 O’ Clock” number “I Know Where I’ve Been”–one of most moving “civil rights” anthems written for a musical. Here it’s a definite showstopper that’s worth waiting for! Timyra Joi is also a diminutive bundle of sheer vivacity with a voice large enough to shake the heavens as her ‘daughter’ “Little Inez”. (If anything, young Miss Joi is the one actress you wish had more to do, as her times in the spotlight are always nothing short of electrifying!)
Glorious and glowering as the station owner and former “Miss Baltimore Crabs”–“Velma Von Tussle”, Camryn Zelinger utterly bowls ’em over—bringing to life one of the tastiest villainesses ever to appear in musical comedy! (If only years earlier, that damn Shirley Temple hadn’t stolen her friggin’ act!) Committed to keeping black and white TV all white, she also gets the best lines, even gloating at one point: “It pays to have a politician in your pocket and Polaroids in your safe!”; then, upon meeting Edna she sneers “I guess you two are living proof that the watermelon doesn’t fall far from the vine!” Zelinger’s expert execution of “Miss Baltimore Crabs” hits all the right comic notes; later, after butting heads with Corny regarding efforts to desegregate his show, she seethes “He’s a puppet—but I hold the purse and its strings!” Ellie Wyman is also sweetly sinister as her daughter, “Amber”—the picture-perfect mean girl who, according to Tracy, has “acne of the soul”. As the would-be ingénue of Collins’ show, she does a superlative job serving at the forefront of numbers like “The Nicest Kids In Town”, while “Mama I’m A Big Girl Now”—a lively trio comprised of “Tracy”, “Penny”, and “Amber” as they individually ‘share’ in the tribulations of ‘modern teen-dom’, is a triumph for all three actresses.
Not to be overlooked either is Cody Bianchi as “Link Larkin”, boy-crooner and the resident ‘teen idol’ of “The Corny Collins Show”. Suavely ‘styling’ his songs with hints of “Elvis”, “Fabian” and other Bubble-Gum Icons of the day, he scores delivering “It Takes Two”, and again with his part in “Without Love”, when he and “Seaweed” attempt to rescue their lady-loves, “Tracy” and “Penny” respectively. In addition, sporting a brilliant tooth-paste smile and pristinely lacquered hair, Jordan Goodsell is appropriately charming and unctuous as small-time TV host “Corny Collins”. He shines presiding over “The Nicest Kids In Town” (which introduces his fresh-faced, strictly-Caucasian troupe,) then subsequently in the big title number (which is essentially a commercial for the show-within-a-show’s sponsor!) Outstanding also are Elizabeth Adabale, LaRece Hawkins and Jenae Thompson as the aptly named “Dynamites”—together they form a ‘supreme-ly’ awesome 60’s era “girl group” furnishing some harmonic spark and pizzazz to “Welcome To The 60’s”.
Here’s ‘the chance’ to see this old favorite like it’s never been seen before–“You can’t stop” from having an outrageously enjoyable time at the theater!
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