REVIEW: Hairspray (Jedlicka Performing Arts Center)

Fat is the new black

 

Cast of Hairspray - Finale

   
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center presents
   
Hairspray
 
Bood by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music/Lyrics by
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by Dante Joseph Orfei
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, Cicero (map)
Through July 31  |  
Tickets: $10-$17  |  more info 

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

In the genre of cult films turned into Broadway musicals, Hairspray, currently in a beautifully voiced production at Jedlicka Performing Arts Center in Cicero, may be exceeded only by Little Shop of Horrors. Both shows take quirky approaches to 1960s culture. And both, in their way, are based on horror films.

Amanda Nianick - Tracy Little Shop of Horrors is about a terrorizing, man-eating plant. Hairspray’s subject, to some, seems even more horrifying: Obesity. The plot follows Tracy Turnblad, a plump, bouffant-haired, working-class teenager who yearns to dance on a popular Baltimore TV show, and bring her African-American friends with her. “I want every day to be ‘Negro Day,’ ” she says.

The message of the show has changed somewhat over the years. Fat had yet to become the stuff of nightmares in 1988, when John Waters created his edgy film looking back at the 1960s civil-rights movement. Waters meant it as ironic metaphor when he equated prejudice against people over skin color to bigotry against people over size — much as Randy Newman’s satirical song "Short People" had done a decade before.

During the high racial tensions of the 60’s era, the juxtaposition of fat hatred and racism ranked as high absurdity. Chubbiness was merely unfashionable, while race hatred ran so deep it was unsafe for blacks to venture into white neighborhoods. The comparison remained ridiculous in 2002, when playwrights Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman turned the Waters film into a bouncy Broadway musical.

Today, with all the bitter invective and even violence directed at fat people, it’s starting to seem not so funny.

Hairspray ran in New York for more than 2,600 performances before closing early last year, just before the inauguration of our skinny, black president, Barack Obama. While racism is still with us, equality for African Americans has definitely come a long way forward. The position of ample Americans, meanwhile, has deteriorated to the point where fat folks falsely get the blame for everything from the ills of the health-care system to global warming, with the government poised to track body-mass indices and slender First Lady Michele Obama piling on the stigma.

Today, Hairspray’s message, "You’ve got to think big to be big," has a whole new meaning. Yet it remains a wonderful, deservedly popular musical, with witty dialogue, great tunes and an inspiring story, all highlighted in JPAC’s expansive production.

Considerable technical trouble plagued opening night. A larger-than-expected audience overwhelmed the box office, leading to a start some 20 minutes late. The lights often washed out the backdrop projection screen, while some scenes were too dark, and spotlights sometimes failed to follow their targets. They’d have been much better off with a single painted set and simpler, brighter lighting design. So much haze obscured the stage, it looked as if the ventilation system had been clogged by too much hairspray.

Worst of all, audio feedback, buzzes and uneven sound distracted from the fine singers. It’s to be hoped they’ve fixed things by now, but even with all the problems, the cast’s immense talents shone through.

Amanda Nianick stars as a lively Tracy Turnblad, opening with a vastly powerful rendition of "Good Morning, Baltimore," and Micheal Kott gives a droll performance as her mother, Edna — the role played by Divine in the original film. (It rather misses the point of this show to use padded-out performers instead of casting appropriately sized actors, but we’ll let that go.)

TJ Crawford brings lithe moves and a rich voice to Tracy’s detention friend Seaweed J. Stubbs, and petite Dawn Pryor belts out some big sound as his sister, Little Inez. (Aisha) Nikki Greenlee adds potent vocal largesse as their mom, Motormouth Maybelle, with well-rounded renditions of "Big, Blonde & Beautiful" and "I Know Where I’ve Been."

Ryan Hunt and the Cast of Hairspray with Ana Beleval

Ryan Hunt makes an engaging Corny Collins, Gabby McConnell puts in some fine comic turns as Tracy’s friend, Penny Pingleton, and Nancy Kolton, playing several roles, is especially hilarious as the prison matron. The rest of the ensemble do splendidly as well.

Music Director Adam Gustafson leads a rockin’ 10-piece band — Amos Gillespie (reeds), Carlotta Mayen (reeds), Ben Scholz (percussion), Mike Brooks (percussion), Cody Siragusa (bass), Sandy Lind (keyboards) and Alex Newkirk (keyboards) — that does the high-energy, Motown-influenced score full justice.

It’s a buoyant if sometimes timid production. Christine Kerr’s often lackluster choreography exhibits few of the sexual overtones that made "colored music" so shocking to 1960s sensibilities. And, though Tracy’s zeal for teen hearthrob Link Larkin is written into the script, the passion that ought to sizzle between the couple seems lacking. Vincent Soto brings a great voice, good looks and some great moves to Link, but he makes a cold lover.

Still, the whopping vocals and hugely hopeful theme of JPAC’s Hairspray overcome its imperfections. Go see it.

Along with the hummable tunes, most of us can take away the inspiring idea that we don’t have to be afraid to throw our weight around.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Note: Additional senior discount for July 25th matinee – mention “hairdo” when reserving your tickets.

 

Original Hairspray movie trailer

REVIEW: Nothin’ But The Blues (Black Ensemble Theatre)

Lifted by the Blues

 

Nothin-But-The-Blues-emsemble

 
The Black Ensemble Theatre presents
   
Nothin’ But the Blues
  
Written by Joe Plummer
Directed by
Jackie Taylor and Daryl Brooks
at
Black Ensemble Theatre, 4520 N. Beacon (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $45   |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Let me take you on a journey to the not so distant past. Take a step into the dark glass brick lounges of the South and West sides of Chicago. The ladies are dressed like they are entered in a pageant and the gentlemen are exquisitely groomed in a rainbow of colors not seen on Wall Street. The Black Ensemble Theater brings this  world vividly to life in Nothin’ But the Blues. This glorious musical is a tribute to the legendary Theresa’s Lounge that operated out of a basement from 1954 until 1983.

 Lawrence Williams and Rhonda Preston in "Nothin' But the Blues" at BETThe cast parades out singing an original song by Black Ensemble founder Jackie Taylor blended in with snippets from blues classics immediately recognizable by the audience. They are stock characters familiar if you have seen ‘chitlin circuit’ comics or Oscar Micheaux revivals with all Black casts. The chitlin’ circuit was where Black comics and singers toured through the South confined to juke joints and establishments in the Colored Only areas. Some of the world’s greatest music and performers cut their teeth on the circuit and rarely received proper recognition while still living.

There is the bar room sage named Washburn played by Rick Stone. He plays the old guy sitting in the corner who sees everything and says little. Mr. Stone is a stately older gentleman who I remember from the classic 70’s movie “Cooley High”.

He sings several numbers with suave facial exaggerations distinct to the emotions of the blues. He moves his body in a fluid and comical manner while singing of covert love and shenanigans in “Back Door Man”. He raises the subject matter above the raunchy content while keeping the sly fun going.

Rhonda Preston plays Theresa Needham with sass and wit. Ms. Preston has a powerhouse voice and whip smart comic timing as Mrs. Needham, who kept the Lounge and the music going for thirty years against the odds. History tells of Theresa’s famous puppet that she kept behind the bar that hid a gun in case things got out of hand. Ms. Preston looks at home behind the bar and projects the motherly tough love that comes to be expected of lady saloonkeepers. She will pour you a stiff drink and kick your butt to the curb while singing some gutbucket blues on Blue Mondays Open Mike at the Lounge. She is hilarious to watch and will have you stomping your feet with her voice.

Trinity Murdock plays the role of the doorman Will with a perfect weariness and touch of lecherous flair when the lovely ladies enter the Lounge. There is a fine exchange between Mr. Murdock and Candace C. Edwards as the hot bar hussy Rolanda. He lusts but she pointedly tells him that he is too old for the kind of fun she is out to have. Ms. Edwards’ Rolanda is a throwback to the sirens of the 40’s. She teases but never reaches the sleaze factor that so many actresses fall into these days. The character’s goodies are a mystery even wrapped in a slinky blue dress.

 

Nothin-But-The-Blues-Rhonda-Preston Nothin-But-The-Blues-Stone-Murdock
Nothin-But-The-Blues-Lyle-Miller2 Nothin-But-The-Blues-Noreen-Starks2 Nothin-But-The-Blues-Reddrick-Murdock

The biggest laughs come from the exchanges between Lyle Miller as Lewis the Drunk and Ms. Preston. Miller brings the stumbling neighborhood drunk to comical life. He tries to wheedle a bar tab and hit on the ladies despite his sweaty disheveled visage. Theresa pours his drinks but keeps him in check with stinging barbs. He has a rather predictable storyline with Robin Beaman as Flo – another well-dressed barfly. Ms. Beaman is a fine singer and has a heart-wrenching role as the woman who lost her love and listens to the blues for a cure.

A very handsome and muscular Kelvin Rolston Jr. plays the neighborhood mailman. He drops in after work to have a drink and engage in some canoodling with Rolanda until his winsome and apparently devout wife discovers his subterfuge. Noreen Starks is a delight as Mrs. Tate, the mailman’s wife. She turns the church lady image on its head with a fiery rendition of “You Can Have My Husband But Don’t Mess With My Man”. It was a fun climactic moment when she confronts Rolanda about her wanton ways with Mr. Tate. She lets everyone know that wives are getting their share too.

The most pleasant surprise of the evening came from Lawrence Williams as “The Kid”. He projects innocence with his youthful eagerness and jangly energy but when  he steps up to the microphone, he sings with the loneliness and sadness of a man decades older. It is Mr. Williams theatrical debut and he has star quality in his voice and acting.

Nothing-But-The-Blues (Edwards-Preston-Miller)Some of the plot lines in Nothin’ But The Blues are predictable and a little too neatly tied up. That is a risk that comes with portraying a historical figure and an era when ‘chitlin circuit’ was the norm. However, that is also what is so comforting and wonderful about this show. It is authentic with the music and the vibe of Theresa’s Lounge – or any of the neighborhood places where the wet glasses “sing” when stacked on the bar mat. Black Ensemble is known for bringing the stories of the unsung to life with great flair and this is another bulls-eye for them. It needs to be said many times where the roots of rock and roll came from because time always rewrites history. The great blues lounges and taverns have given way to people with deeper pockets and a commercialized sound. It is wonderful to be reminded that Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Stevie Ray Vaughn sat in Theresa’s before they took their sounds to the world.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fabulous set design by Carl Ulaszek. It is spot on with the photo of Dr. King amidst the glasses and bottles just like he was on the walls of countless Black people back in the day. There is an appropriately greenish jar of pickled eggs for the classic ‘working man’s breakfast – a shot, a stein, and a pickled egg. The signs and the beautiful Formica bar put a little lump in my throat for times gone by. BET founder Jackie Taylor designed the gorgeous costumes. Ms. Taylor is a force of nature that has brought the Ensemble to national recognition. She scores big with the colorful and outrageous costumes. Black people dressed to the nines in the days of Theresa’s and places like the Roberts 500 Club. Everything matched down to the shoes. It brings joy to see the fedora making a return!

One piece of friendly advice – when you go to Nothin’ But the Blues, be sure to bring your toe tapping shoes!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Nothin’ But The Blues plays on Saturdays at 8:00 and Sundays at 3:00 through August 29th at the Black Ensemble Theater 4520 N. Beacon in Chicago. Call 773-769-4451 or visit www.blackensembletheater.org

L-ro-R: Trinity Murdock, Rhonda Preston and Rick Stone

 

           

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