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

2 Responses

  1. This is an odd review…
    Bad lighting, bad sound, “lackluster choreography” and no chemistry between the leads, but it gets 31/2 stars?!?

    • Fabulous singing! Hilarious acting! I meant it when I wrote, “…Even with all the problems, the cast’s immense talents shone through.”

      At $17 a ticket, I’m prepared to overlook a few places where an ambitious show overreached its grasp.

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