Wheelock’s "Hairspray" : The Nicest Kids in Town

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I had never seen anything at Wheelock Family Theatre, but I could not think of a better musical than Hairspray as an introduction to WFT’s fine work. I can’t pretend that the production didn’t have its flaws, but, looking around on opening night, I noticed that the audience more than appreciated the production for its prime importance: fun. WFT assembles a wealth of talent on its stage, complete with Equity performers and local emerging talent. This harmony provide the production with rich underscoring for the musical’s central themes of acceptance and diversity.

Leading this production is Jenna Lea Scott as the larger-than-life Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with even bigger dreams of dancing on the catchy “Corny Collins Show.” Scott grew on me as a performer, but her opening number was regrettable sub-par; perhaps I am too biased, but I consider “Good Morning, Baltimore” to be one of the show’s dynamite numbers and one of the better openings of a musical. Scott’s rendition fell flat to me, perhaps opening night jitters prevented her from truly belting this song’s optimism. Fortunately, we are treated to the introduction of the incredibly strong “teen” ensemble of the Council of the “Corny Collins Show.” This group of singers/dancers/performers save so many elements of this show, racing on-stage with energy and popping each dance move with quirk and personality. Notable stand-outs include Kyle VanZandt’s Brad (this kid can *dance* and *perform*—why he wasn’t cast as Link with his charm and easy confidence is as confusing as the mostly-forgettable Council girls); Andrew Winans’s Fender (making the most of his character’s presence on-stage); and My Theatre-favourite Jackie Theoharis’ Brenda (who first impressed with her ability to “pop” in an ensemble in Spring Awakening). Overall, however, the ensemble men impress over the ensemble women. I don’t know where WFT found and assembled such talented male performers, but they should keep them, or, even better, other companies should steal them. Many of these ensemble members could have easily played lead roles in other productions which lends itself to all-star ensemble numbers with crisp choreography, winning smiles, and over-the-top characters.

For the most part, the production presents a campy view of the ‘60s, mirroring the John Waters’ movie. Some cast members accomplished this style better than others, however. One of the easily best performances of the night was Jennifer Beth Glick’s Penny Pingleton. Always gum-popping with naïve one-liner after one-liner to steal the show, Glick is a star presence. Her belty voice perfectly matches her larger-than-life personality, and she provides the perfect blend of camp with true characterization. Her shining moments for me were in “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” (surprisingly). In a somewhat of a throw-away musical number, Glick creates a Penny who yearns to be more than the bland religious “good girl” daughter that her mother wishes for her. This attention to character and detail is what makes Glick steal the show again and again throughout the night. As previously mentioned, Michael Notardonato’s Link Larkin failed to impress me. I often mention the “It” factor as a deciding quality for me when watching some roles; I find the quality in some actors’ natural demeanors onstage because I am drawn to their energy and magneticism. Notardonato might have it, but he didn’t display it nearly enough in his Link. His Link seemed reserved and lacked some of the natural appeal of the stand-out performer on the “Corny Collins Show.” Likewise, while Amber Von Tussle is not supposedly to be a memorable performer on the show, Amber is supposed to be somewhat dynamic on-stage, which, unfortunately, Jane Bernhard lacked when I saw the show. Neither Notardonato nor Bernhard were bad performers by any means, but both lacked the “wow” factor for which some of the ensemble members and Glick seemed to possess naturally.

Mark Linehan’s Corny Collins is a safe bet. Never truly embodying the charm of a television celebrity, his songs feel safe and reserved; he steps-up his acting, especially in scenes with Aimee Doherty’s Velma Von Tussle. I was pleasantly surprised by Doherty’s performance. I saw her most recently in both One Man, Two Guv’nors and On the Town, neither of which left me with much of an impression of this dynamic woman. Here, Doherty hits her stride with the cool calculation, the slinky sexuality, and the biting criticism of the former Miss Baltimore Crabs. Doherty’s turn in “Miss Baltimore Crabs” is stunning and, again and again, she impresses and surprises with her full physicality and vocal range as Velma, making the perfect villain that you love to applaud and hate to love. Robert Saoud’s Edna Turnblad also grew on me. With biting humor in the beginning scenes, Saoud’s performance grew into so much more, perfectly balancing Edna’s insecurities with her girl-ish enthusiasm. This subtle blend is showcased best in “Welcome to the 60’s” with unrestrained exuberance. While I didn’t care for much of Peter A. Carey’s character choices for her husband Wilbur Turnblad, Saoud and Carey form an excellent pair in the rarely-good, often-awkward “You’re Timeless to Me;” the song is filled with clever character choices and motivated movements and interactions that keep the song fresh and exciting for the audience.

Unfortunately, the Record Shop Kids are a mostly forgettable lot, though that is partly a product of the book writer’s poor use of such characters, however, The Dynamites, played with boisterous energy by Maritz Bostic, Ciera-Dawn Washington, and Kerri Wilson-Ellenberger, are wonderful to watch and hear. Tyla Collier’s Little Inez easily steals her scenes with her powerful vocals and cute yet fierce personality. Jon Allen’s Seaweed J. Stubbs has some nice moments, especially with Glick’s Penny, but he lacks some of the “umph” for “Run and Tell That.” Similarly, Gamalia Pharms’ Motormouth Maybelle delivers a heartfelt performance as the soulful matriarch, yet she lacks some of the drive behind her voice to sell her beautiful “I Know Where I’ve Been” which diminishes her power to inspire and command.

Matthew Stern’s music direction is top-notch; he commands the strong orchestra with ease and coaxes the best from his performers. Most of the ensemble numbers clipped along at the perfect tempo to match the energetic dancing, but some of the solos and smaller ensemble numbers seemed to drag in parts. Particularly impressive, Laurel Conrad’s choreography is a winning highlight for this popular show. Partly due to the stunning male ensemble members, Conrad’s choreography pops with just the right amount of gusto and character to transport the audience back to the exciting ‘60’s. Costume Designer Lisa Simpson outdoes herself with the colorful blends of form-fitting pants and dresses to flatter each and every cast member, while telling a story of class, wealth, and style.

Director Susan Kosoff deserves praise for her assembly of such a fantastic group of designers, while organizing, managing, and directing such a large cast. I’m not sure how to treat her direction, however. While, at some points, I admired her clever use of space and movement, at other times, I felt that she played for the “LCD” (lowest common denominator, a trend that I am seeing more and more in all forms of theatre). You see, I don’t want to be a theatre snob of a reviewer, but I am noticing an emerging trend of productions where directors and producers create shows that cater to audiences who like camp with a lack of style and polish. While Hairspray fits the mold for campy rather than clever, I still wish that the production provided that extra mile of artistic integrity. I am reminded of a discussion with a theatre classmate during college about the importance of “art” and the “purpose” of theatre. Is theatre meant to entertain the masses as a kind of “bread and circuses” or does it serve a loftier goal of “education” and “enlightenment”? I digress from my review for a moment, however, I think they’re important questions which have no easy answers. As I looked around the audience, I noticed that WFT provides quality entertainment for audience members of all ages. Yet, I wonder if they can go the extra step towards providing this same entertainment while asking questions to and educating these same audience members. With timely themes of acceptance, diversity, and self-empowerment, Hairspray offers a powerful vehicle for discussion. Or it’s simply a fun night at the theatre with a medley of tunes to belt in the car on the way home. Either way, Wheelock Family Theatre’s Hairspray pops its talent and dances its way into this reviewer’s chilly (and perhaps pretentious) heart as a stimulating production for audiences of all ages.

As originally published on My Entertainment World