PORTLAND PLAYERS’ “HAIRSPRAY” IS ONE HUGE HIT!

Portland Players presents the big fat musical sensation HAIRSPRAY. (l-r: Alison Bogannan as Tracy Turnblad, Adam Normand as Edna Turnblad and Paul Bell as Mr. Pinky)

Portland Players presents the big fat musical sensation HAIRSPRAY. (l-r: Alison Bogannan as Tracy Turnblad, Adam Normand as Edna Turnblad and Paul Bell as Mr. Pinky)

May, 2015

The beat of a whole new era explodes with spectacular fun and energy galore in Portland Players’ production of the big fat musical HAIRSPRAY, running now through June 7th.  Welcome to the 60s!

Written by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, HAIRSPRAY is set in Baltimore in 1962 and is a gentle social commentary and joyous celebration of the integrations of black and white, young and old, rock and soul, entitled and not.

The storyline is driven by Tracy Turnblad, a plus-size passionate high schooler who dances her way onto the popular Corny Collins teen tv show and uses her newly acquired fame to change the world (“I think it’s stupid that we can’t dance together”). With determined naiveté—and complete support from her parents Edna and Wilbur—her quest for justice and fairness lands her in jail, but also lands her a boyfriend, a spokes-girl contract for a plus-size dress shop, and a whole lotta popularity.

During a game of dodge ball, Tracy is knocked out by her nemesis, Amber Von Tussle (daughter of Corny Collins Show Producer Velma Von Tussle), prompting an invitation from Seaweed J. Stubbs (fellow detention student and a Negro Day dancer) to explore new territory—Northern Avenue—where his mom, Motormouth Maybelle, is throwing a platter party. This is where Tracy formulates and launches her dream of integrating The Corny Collins Show on national television.

Naturally, there are complications on all fronts that lead to a wonderfully clever collage of touching scenes and powerful songs revealing some honest and emotional soul-searching amidst the personal, interpersonal and interracial challenges. In the end, Tracy stays true to herself, and is fortunately pardoned by the Governor and released from jail (a second time) in perfect time to compete in The Corny Collins Miss Teenage Hairspray competition. Musical and cultural history is made, dreams come true, and a rousing celebration brings the audience to their feet.

The music is front-and-center, in-your-face, undeniably fantastic, including the syrupy “clean white kids” pop rock ditties, the period television seque music, and the great infusion of rhythm & blues. Music Director David Delano leads a 6-piece pit with a panache that keeps the feet tapping, the hands clapping and the hearts warm.

For this show, Director Michael Donovan has assembled a huge cast of 40 actors, singers and dancers—a daring feat for any community theater. But Donovan successfully uses every square inch of stage and fills it with talent, movement, excitement and 60s razzle-dazzle.

Choreographer Victoria Perreault’s vision and effort are well-noted. Clearly there are some strong dancers in this show who capture the audience’s roaming eyes, but Perreault’s guidance (and individual attention to detail) makes everyone look good and move well—in two genres.

The lead characters are ridiculously superlative—period! The Turnblad Family (Alison Bogannan as Tracy, Adam Normand as Edna and Mark Barasso as Wilbur) are equal, if not better, than their Broadway counterparts. Most noteworthy, however, is Normand’s drag-role as the plus-sized mother. Clearly, this guy is outrageously comfortable in his skin and masterfully drives all his scenes with expert timing, comedic perfection and unabashed entertainment.

Rachel Henry is Penny Pingleton, Edna’s dorky and devoted friend who becomes smitten by Seaweed. Jessica Libby is the villainess Velma Von Tussle, one-time beauty queen who now produces The Corny Collins Show and pushes her daughter to seek the stardom she never had. Rachel Friedman is Amber Von Tussle, the quintessential spoiled bratty entitled American princess who will do anything to win. ALL are absolutely flawless with their character interpretations, vocal deliveries and superb comedy.

David Van Duyne is effective as teen heartthrob Link Larkin, one of The Corny Collins Show Council members who falls in love with Tracy. Other Council members/dancers include Abigail Ackley as Tammy, Schuyler White as Brad, Waice Falconeri as Fender, Bailey Auspland as Brenda, Kyle Aarons as Sketch, Caryn Wintle as Shelly, Taylor Gervais as IQ, Holly Hinchliffe as Lou Ann, Jessica Tkacik as Sue, Sarah Yoder as Lucy, Alexandra Swaney as Kim and Robin Sillars as Peggy.

Chris Jones surpassed expectations with his stupendous performance as Seaweed, with all the right moves and a sweet voice. His little sister, Little Inez, was played by Lily Thorne who nailed her role, leaving a desire to hear more from that talented young lady. Their mother, Motormouth Maybelle, owner of a record shop, was righteously portrayed by Emily Akeley (“Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and the powerful torchy “I Know Where I’ve Been” were majestic).

The Dynamites, an all-girl back-up singing group consisting of Brie Roche as Judine, Rebecca Washko as Kamilah and Jona Cormier as Shayna were crowd pleasers with a strong presence and solid vocals—a nice professional salute to the great period music.

Sean Senior was very convincing as the cocky self-absorbed Corny Collins. Other worthy performances were provided by Megan Bremermann as the Matron (“The Big Dollhouse”), Paul Bell as the Principal, Mandela Gardner as Gilbert, Mikayla Clifford as Cindy Watkins and Madison Duong as Lorraine.

As typical with any blockbuster musical, the ensemble was quite busy and impressive and included Emily Butson, Justin Gifford, Kristen Higgins, Christie Paul, Peter Salsbury, Rebecca Skolnik, Ashleigh St. Pierre, Sophia Sturdee and Natalie Veilleux.

What makes HAIRSPRAY such a spectacular show are the many elements of entertainment that combine for an unequaled first-rate audience experience. Every song is fun, comforting and infectious, but the group numbers, “Good Morning Baltimore, Welcome To The 60s, Without Love” are hands-down awesome (although the duet with Edna and Wilbur, “You’re Timeless To Me,” was a show-that-stole-the-show-within-a-show). Clearly, Director Donovan knows how to work a crowd, and knows how to get his cast to reach their highest level of performance.

The only drawbacks for me were technical concerns, mainly the sound. For such a superb production that features supreme wall-of-sound group singing, I was disappointed in the unevenness of the singing levels. All the parts were there as evidenced by the cast members who were mic’d, but the ever-important melody was not out front. Additionally, harmonies and lines were lost when alternately delivered by those with mic’s and those without.

Most importantly, I would suggest that Portland Players consider an audio system upgrade. The two hung house speakers just didn’t have the wattage to cleanly handle the wonderful and powerful vocals that were being poured out on stage, and the equalization didn’t seem optimal for each singer. The result was distortion at peaked output levels and muffled and indiscernible lyrics.

But all was easily forgiven when Tracy’s dream came true and the orchestra started “You Can’t Stop The Beat.” For years I’ve been telling people that the finale of HAIRSPRAY is one of the most exciting, lively, upbeat, extravagant finales in all of musical theater. “How was Donovan gonna pull this one off?” I thought to myself. “With ridiculous grandeur,” was his cast’s reply. BRAVO to one and all!

HAIRSPRAY is now running through June 7th at the Portland Players, 420 Cottage Road in South Portland. Shows are at 7:30 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 PM on Sundays. For tickets and info, call 799-7337 or visit www.portlandplayers.org.

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–Louis Philippe

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