New compact HAIRSPRAY A Rousing Winner at OC’s Chance Theater
by Michael L. Quintos
Ever since its celebrated Broadway debut back in 2002, the hit Tony Award-winning musical comedy HAIRSPRAY continues to be a critical and popular favorite, particularly as even more regional theaters across the globe mount their own local versions of this delightful stage adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 cinematic cult classic (which itself was also re-adapted into a big screen movie musical hit in 2007). Not surprisingly, larger theaters—armed with larger crews, larger spaces, and larger budgets—have usually given it a go at some point, producing mostly laudable efforts that more likely mirror the original beloved production as faithfully as possible.
So to hear that Orange County’s bold, award-winning Chance Theater is producing its own “intimate” theater iteration, I was more than excited about the prospect of what a spunky little company like this could do with a widely popular property like HAIRSPRAY. Knowing the proven, exemplary capabilities that these excellent troupe of creatives have consistently demonstrated with their own versions of other “large-scale” shows, the expectations for this one has been—pun quite intended—enormous.
Well, this critic is ecstatic to report that Chance Theater’s new, more compact production of this big fat musical hit—which continues its limited run at its Anaheim theater space through August 9—is an absolutely undeniable, all-around rousing winner. Wonderfully faithful material-wise, but executed with lots of giddy audaciousness and inventive re-staging to fit its specific parameters, their resulting show continues the musical comedy’s track record as a crowd-pleaser full of terrific music (courtesy of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) and witty outlandish comedy (courtesy of book writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan).
And with this new local revival, it’s harder to deny this stage musical’s prowess as a sure-fire entertaining show, one that’s able to transcend production (and, perhaps, even budgetary) constraints when executed effectively. So, bravo to Chance Theater for taking on this mainstream hit and making it actually feel like a fresh, awesome little indie.
Leave it to now frequent Chance Theater director Kari Hayter—a proven, smart expert at taking large musicals and scaling them down snuggly into a smaller footprint—to once again take the reins and reinvent how a Chance Theater production is presented. Keeping the lesson-laden intent and the ribald, cheeky spirit of HAIRSPRAY intact, Hayter stages the show in a semi-theater-in-the-round style with very minimal set pieces and props, allowing the show’s message and whimsy to (literally) surround the audience via its likable ensemble cast whom, at times, stand just inches away from theatergoers.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Just because the footprint of Chance Theater’s space is smaller does not mean that this HAIRSPRAY’s scaled-down theatrics sacrifices the musical comedy’s enjoyability. Just like the problem its perky main character tries to endure, you certainly can’t judge a book by its cover: though the show begs for big production numbers and complex sets (and set ups) as it was originally presented, it does not mean a small-scale production can’t do the show justice. Just because this production doesn’t have huge TV studio cameras to indicate that part of the show takes place inside a local TV studio doesn’t automatically render it from telling its story effectively.
While at first you do somewhat miss all of the eye-popping bells and whistles and visual pow of previous larger, full-scale productions of the show, Chance Theater’s iteration proves to be quickly as endearing (if not more) once the opening number sets up the saucy amusements that are about to explode, reminding one and all that the show’s story, characters, and music are truly what makes this such an all-around favorite in the first place.
Still, it is quite a savvy production nonetheless, featuring minimalist scenic designs by Matt Scarpino that serve as a contrasting canvas for Bradley Lock’s colorful era-appropriate costumes, Matt Schleicher’s impressive lighting designs, and the peppy, pulsating choreography of Kelly Todd and Christopher M. Albrecht.
Hayter’s guidance allows for some imagination to fill-in-the-blanks, so to speak, without looking like they simply just skimped on the production. Actually, more than anything, this minimalist approach and the closer proximity between audience and actors prove to be its best asset: the immersion within the narrative feels like the audience is even more in on the jokes and the emotional dilemmas, making the whole enterprise a shared, communal activity for all to enjoy. By the time certain audience members are actually pulled in to join the cast during the climactic finalé dance number, this HAIRSPRAY successfully morphs into an all-out dance party that simultaneously celebrates one’s unique individuality as well as the integration of diverse sets of people. How can you not love that?!
Most of the glorious action of Chance Theater’s HAIRSPRAY happens right smack-dab in the center of the space, with audiences mostly seated in either the left or right side and a few lucky more (with, let’s face it, the best seats in the house with full, comfortable view of every part of the show) seated directly opposite a raised “front” stage that holds the splendid house band/orchestra led by musical director and principal accompanist Robyn Manion (huge shout out as well to sound designer Daniel Tator for the excellent sound mix that found the perfect right balance between the voices and the live band).
Though I half-expected the seats to be bleachers like you would find in a high school gymnasium or football field, I was still very much sold on the idea that this boxed-in theater space housed Baltimore in the 1960’s. At times, these energetic cast members are sprinting all around the space, and even singing and dancing boisterously behind audience members, increasing the fun and party atmosphere even more than has already been embedded in the material. In this harmonious ensemble’s hands, the show’s memorable songs such as “Good Morning, Baltimore,” “Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now,” “Welcome To The 60s,” “Run And Tell That,” “I Know Where I’ve Been,” and, of course, the seemingly non-stop “You Can’t Stop The Beat” are vigorously performed.
Another bonus: the proximity to the fun actually makes the cast accountable for everything they do while performing or while leaping and shimmying behind us—because it’s all there, exposed and so close to us. This staging is pretty brave, in that sense.
And so, yes, with less attention paid to the show’s visual aspects as one might expect in a larger-scale production, it certainly helps when the casting—by default, the show’s other most glaringly out-front asset—is given due diligence to effectively make this story come to full-fledged life. In this outstanding production’s case, the Chance Theater really lucked out by finding two very excellent lead actors in their mother-daughter Turnblad pairing.
As Tracy Turnblad, the story’s plucky main hero and expected revolutionary, Taylor M. Hartsfield’s adorable demeanor and spot-on vocals make you wholeheartedly root for her and her mission to “eat some breakfast and change the world”—which, in this case, involves first breaking into The Corny Collins Show, a local TV teen dance show as their first full-figured “council member” and then, later, to once-and-for-all help integrate the show itself so that both the white and black kids can dance together. Hartsfield, for her part, sells the character with lots of heart, a natural bubbli-ness, and unabashed goofiness.
Similarly compelling and incredibly hilarious is Chance Theater newcomer Joe Tish as Tracy’s mom Edna, also a big gal with an even bigger heart—particularly when it comes to protecting her daughter from the ugliness and judgments of the world—something she’s quite familiar with in her own life. Riveting to watch with every appearance, Tish—continuing the tradition of having a male actor in drag play the role—is equally at ease playing both deeply vulnerable and outwardly sassy, and he and Hartsfield wonderfully play off each other. Tish has similar, palpable chemistry with Robin Walton, who plays Edna’s adorkable, still-madly-in-love husband Wilbur, the lovable, judgment-free owner of the local Har-Dee-Har Hut Joke Shop. The two sincerely steal the show in the second act with their winning duet in “You’re Timeless To Me,” which, frankly, I wish would have gone on longer than it did (the original and subsequent productions allowed the actors playing the couple to riff and improv a bit more during this number).
Another scene-stealer is the super funny Sarah Pierce, who plays Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s ever-loyal, gum-chewing dim-bulb best friend who falls head-over-penny loafers in lust over the studly Seaweed J. Stubbs, the African-American dance phenom with a penchant for getting school detention, played with plenty of seductive smolder by the velvet-voiced Xavier J. Watson. Together, both actors have great rapport and superb comedic chops.
Other cast standouts include the lovely and comedic Ellie Wyman as Tracy’s shade-spewing arch nemesis Amber Von Tussle; youthful Cody Bianchi as teen heartthrob (and Tracy’s crush) Link Larkin; the quirky Corky Loupe who plays several amusing male characters;Karen Webster who gamely plays several female characters; the sarcastic Jordan Goodsell as wide-smiling TV host Corny Collins; The Voice’s riff-tastic Timyra-Joi as super talented Little Inez; and LaJoi Whitten as rhyming “Negro Day” D.J./host (and mom to Seaweed and Little Inez) Motormouth Maybelle.
And, finally, quickly becoming a favorite featured actress in the Chance Theater productions I have seen is Camryn Zelinger, who is just absolutely, wickedly terrific here as Velma Von Tussle, Amber’s openly-bigoted, former beauty queen mom and the snobby producer of The Corny Collins Show. With a voice (speaking and singing) and attitude that’s perfectly bitchy and scary at the same time, Zelinger is just oh so deliciously evil in this one—and I could not get enough of it.
I must say… this cast’s charming enthusiasm is infectious. It probably helps that the show itself is so much fun to experience, that it’s natural to assume that it is quite fun to perform as well—and you can see that in the hearty performances of this hard-working ensemble. But as uproariously hilarious the show is, at its core is a very poignant, thought-provoking narrative that’s essentially an open call for tolerance and acceptance. In an eerie parallel, the show’s themes of racial integration and fairness is still a much-discussed topic in 2015, not only in this country but also still within the turbulent streets of Baltimore as well.
This is exactly why HAIRSPRAY will forever remain one of the best musicals of the new millennium. After more than a decade of productions both touring and regional, it is still a perfect blend of story, laughs, music, heart, and soul… that aims to blanket the audience with its pertinent pro-integration, pro-acceptance themes that is alarming resonant even today. And with Chance Theater’s impressive, rousingly effective smaller-scaled “intimate” vision, one can surely attest to the fact that size definitely doesn’t matter. It is, as they say, what’s inside that counts.
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