Monday, July 11, 2011
Beck’s HAIRSPRAY pleases audience, but. . .
The setting: Baltimore, Maryland, June 1962. “Balmur, Murlun,” where they “warsh in a zink,” cheer for the baseball “erls” (Orioles), and everyone is known as “hon.” Baltimore, circa 1962, a segregated southern city where North Avenue was the line, much like the Berlin Wall, that divided the city. In this case it divided whites from blacks, and never the twain shall interact. This was mainly true even in the 80s when I lived in Charm City.
HAIRSPRAY, THE BROADWAY MUSICAL centers on "pleasantly plump" Tracy Turnblad, a teenager who is in love with life, pursues stardom as a dancer on a local TV show, and rallies against racial segregation. When she isn’t in detention because of her against-the-rules oversprayed flip hairdo, she rushes home from school with best friend, Penny, to catch The Corny Collins Show. It’s a teenage dance show based on the real-life Baltimore classic Buddy Deane Show. At home is Edna, Tracy’s shy, plus-sized mother and her father, the owner of a store which sells gags, including large-sized whoopee cushions.
When, by some quirk, Tracy wins a role, she becomes a celebrity overnight and launches a campaign to integrate the show and make every day, “negro day” instead of the token display of blacks once a month. Along the way, Tracy finds love, Edna finds it’s okay to be “big and beautiful,” and hopefully, the audience gets a history lesson about segregation and enjoys themselves.
HAIRSPRAY, THE BROADWAY MUSICAL, is based on the 1988 John Waters’ movie. Waters, a life-long Baltimore resident and “trash” and cult film maker, wrote the script, a more serious undertaking than his early flicks, to chastize his hometown residents for their segregationist views.
The musical's original Broadway production opened on August 15, 2002 and won eight Tony Awards. It ran for over 2,500 performances and stared Marissa Jaret Wionokur as Tracy and Harvey Fierstein as Edna. It was followed by a movie staring John Travolta as Edna, Nikki Blonsky as Tracy, and Queen Latifah as Motormouth Mabel.
HAIRSPRAY, with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, has wonderful 1960s-style dance music and "downtown" rhythm and blues. The memorable score includes “The Nicest Kids in Town,” “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” “Big, Blonde & Beautiful,” and ”You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
The score turned out to be controversial with conflict over “I Know Where I’ve Been,” sung by Motormouth Mabel, the black owner of a record store. As one of the production team explained it, the song was “inspired by a scene late in the  movie that takes place on the black side of town. It never dawned on us that a torrent of protest would follow us from almost everyone involved with the show.” He went on to say that many felt is was too preachy. “[But] we simply didn’t want our show to be yet another show-biz version of a civil rights story where the black characters are just background.”
And this philosophy makes this musical unique. Though many find the show to be out and out fun, it is much, much more. HAIRSPRAY is a social commentary on the injustices of much of the country in the 1960s. And, that’s where, in some respects, the Beck production stumbles.
The opening night audience laughed and applauded with glee, cheered the songs, marveled at the wonderful choreography by Martin Cespedes, the master designer of dancing of many local theatre musicals. But, I’m not sure, due to some directing and staging issues, that the message of the show came across.
There were times when visual images on stage failed to separate blacks and whites. Instances where inappropriate interactions of the races, and blending of interracial groups, made the “race thing” not stand out.
The cast varied from great to barely acceptable. Brittany Lynne Eckstrom was a strong Tracy. Her vocals were all excellent. “Good Morning Baltimore” set the proper tone for the show, and her part of “I Can Hear the Bells” was great (but one must wonder why rather than using bells the chorus was “ringing” Coke bottles, eliminating the needed audio sound).
Tina D. Stump was nothing short of sensational as Motormouth. She had the right attitude throughout and her “I Know Where I’ve Been” stopped the show.
Kevin Joseph Kelly, playing the role of Edna in drag, which has become a tradition in the various productions, wisely underplayed the role, not making it into a cross dressing parity. A little more sass and intensity, however, could have helped when Edna finally comes out of her shell. Kelly’s duet “You’re Timelss to Me,” with husband Wilbur (Mark Heffernan) was nicely done.
Alexis Generett Floyd was delightful as Little Inez, Motormouth’s daughter. Anna Bradley, who was fun as the nerdy Penny, was sometimes a little hard to understand, especially in her overly high pitched singing. Laurel Held stayed on the surface as the supposedly bigoted Velma. Her “Miss Baltimore Crab” was void of humor.
The role of Link Larkin is one of those “stereotype” parts that requires a Ken doll who can sing, dance and act. (Think Zak Efron who played the role in the film.) Unfortunately Cody Zak had only his Ken doll looks going for him. Antwaun Holley, as Seaweed, Motormouth’s son, dances well and has a nice sense of comedy, but had great difficulty with the singing aspects of the role. Mark Heffernan was generally bland as Tracy’s supposedly quirky dad.
There was a lack of vocal depth from the choir. There were too few bodies on stage to develop the needed big sound that the show requires.
Ben Needham’s sets worked, but the barless jail cell made the breaking out scene void of impact.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If opening night is any indication, audiences will really like Beck’s HAIRSPRAY. I wish more attention had been paid to making sure the purpose of the script had been more clearly developed and more care had been exercised in casting.