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: Little Shop of Horrors (La Costa Theatre)

My, What a Strange and Interesting Play!

 

DSC_0657

   
La Costa Theatre presents
   
Little Shop of Horrors
 
Book/Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by
Alan Menken
directed by
Dan Sanders-Joyce
Music direction by Ryan Brewster
at
La Costa Theatre, 3931 N. Elston (map)
through July 11th  |  tickets: $25   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker

I have a confession. Little Shop of Horrors is my favorite musical of all time.

I have loved the play ever since I saw the movie version as a child. I own a VHS copy of the director’s cut of the film, which features an alternate ending that falls more in line with the play, and I have the Little Shop of Horrors Broadway revival cast recording, which for three months straight was the background music for my workout DSC_0494 routine at the gym. So it was with great excitement that I sat down at the La Costa Theatre, which sits above an auto shop, to see Chicago’s most recent rendition of this contemporary classic.

Overall, I can’t say I was disappointed. I think La Costa has planted the seed for an amazing production. But it hasn’t quite blossomed just yet. And if that’s not enough plant metaphors for you, I believe after a few more shows, this production has the possibility of growing into a four-star play.

Little Shop of Horrors takes place in skid row, a dilapidated, impoverished city slum. Mr. Mushnik (Peter Verdico) is the proprietor of an eponymous flower shop that, like most businesses in the neighborhood, is failing.

Mr. Mushnik employs the fragile Audrey (Ashley Bush) and the nebbish Seymour (Jonathan Hymen). Audrey dates a sadomasochistic dentist (Tom Moore) whose pastimes include riding motorcycles and domestic abuse.

Everyone’s life is pretty miserable until Seymour comes upon a strange and mysterious plant that he dubs the Audrey II (voiced by Brian-Alwyn Newland and controlled by puppeteer Paul Glickman). The plant’s mere presence creates a boon for Mr. Mushnik’s flower shop, and Seymour becomes a highly sought after celebrity.

However, Seymour harbors a terrible secret. The plant hungers, and the only thing that can satisfy its ever-growing appetite is human blood. And it demands that Seymour feeds it.

The acting is spot on. Hymen’s Seymour is the quintessential underdog nerd. He’s slouchy, he’s disheveled and he’s meek. Still, Seymour is a very passionate character, especially when it comes to matters of the heart and of ethical decisions, and Hymen transmits this with the required restraint.

Bush’s Audrey isn’t as much of a bimbo as other incarnations that I’ve seen, which is completely acceptable as Audrey isn’t stupid so much as she is incredibly insecure and self-effacing. This is a girl who honestly believes she deserves to be abused. But despite being damaged goods, Audrey is also a hopeless romantic, dreaming of one day living in a suburban home where the furniture is wrapped in plastic. Bush captures this hopefulness and hopelessness. It also doesn’t hurt that she has one of the strongest voices in the cast.

 

DSC_0578 DSC_0543
DSC_0881 DSC_0881

I’m sure it must be very difficult to create a giant, man-eating puppet for the stage. But Glickman, who has years of experience as a puppeteer, has created a remarkable Audrey II. I was blown away by how a small independent theatre company managed to create such an amazing special effect for the stage.

There was a technical downside to the production. The sound quality throughout the play was at best adequate and at worst terrible. The balance of the vocals and the live music was completely off. Often the thump of the bass would drown out all of the singers. Even when no music played, the volume of the actors’ mics varied widely. I had hoped this would have been fixed by the second act, but, to my surprise, it was not.

Also, director Dan Sanders-Joyce didn’t do a very good job of spreading the action throughout the theater. The space is rather large, but much of the actors’ movements are relegated to a small part of the stage. This often leads to poor views for half the audience.

La Costa desperately needs to fix Little Shop of Horrorstechnical glitches. (I suppose you could say they need to nip them in the bud.) Otherwise, the company has well-crafted and entertaining production.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
DSC_0586 DSC_0660