Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: HAIRSPRAY—bouffant, buoyant and a real pro show!

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday March 22, 2011 - 08:45:00 PM
Erica Richardson, Victoria Morgan. Marcus Klinger
Blanca Anderson
Erica Richardson, Victoria Morgan. Marcus Klinger

If your spirits need a lift, I recommend CCMT’s HAIRSPRAY at Lesher Center in Walnut Creek. 

It’s a buoyant musical about integrating an American Bandstand-like TV show in Baltimore in 1962. 

Our heroine is an overweight, bouffanted, good-hearted girl with loads of talent supported by her much overweight good-hearted mom—a cross-dressing role written for Divine by its author John Waters of “Pink Flamingo” fame. African-Americans—Negroes was the word then—had one day a month to be on the show: “Negro Day”—and whites and blacks did not dance together to “race” music, much less kiss, much less date, much less…. 

The film version featured John Travolta as mom, Christopher Walken as the dad, Michelle Pfeiffer as the Wicked Producer, Zach Efron as the heartthrob, and John Marsden as Corny Collins, emcee of the “Corny Collins Dance Show.” When there is a recent film version of a musical, the company has their work cut out for them to overcome the inevitable comparisons, and CCMT does it well. The film is one of my campy favorites, but if I had paid money to see this stage version, I would have been doubly pleased. 

The talent is amazing; 300 auditioned for it, and they got the crème to pick from. The chorus is outstanding, the featured performers have professional voices with lots of character, and, for the most part, ain’t bad at all. The choreography is creative and adept: moving 40 is no mean feat, and Jennifer Perry has whipped them into an ensemble to be proud of. With few levels to use for variety and certain hazards to avoid, her use of the stage and final-beat tableaux are object lessons in musical theatre choreography. 

It doesn’t come “bang!” out of the gate at you, but gives us one exceptional number after another building to a show-stopping number where the applause starts before the singing stops by Erica Richardson who plays Motormouth Mabel (played by Queen Latifah in the film) whose Aretha Franklin-style gospel-reminiscent, Detroit-sound vocalizing brings down the house. 

Scott Wittman’s lyrics are witty and touching, and Marc Shaiman’s music has a good beat and you can dance to it--I’d give it a 95! (Ask your mom to explain; well, maybe your grandma.) 

The sets are award-worthy, with the early 60’s cardboard-cutout for the scenery wagons they push on and off, but it’s the backdrops that support the effort wonderfully by invoking a variety of time-specific motifs. It is camp—remember it’s John Waters—so the whole feel is a little cartoon-y. 

The costumes take the cake—and what fun to work with costumes from that gaudy cross-over moment from the ‘50s to the 60’s just before America lost its innocence on a November afternoon in Dallas. 

There are some pitfalls. It’s always a conundrum where to put the orchestra. You want some scenes to be played way down stage on the apron as close to the audience as you can get them, but the orchestra lives there in the pit. The design has two large rhomboids cut out of each side down stage for the pit with run-way in between and about a yard of playing space downstage. The dancers/actors/singers cavort nimbly around this scary hazard, but this eye from the aisle grimaced in fear for their safety more than once, which would burst my bubble and bring me back from their world to mine. 

There are moments of acting that are too presentational, which the director should have labored to correct, and some of the featured performers act a lot better when they are singing than when they are acting, some with a noticeable inability to time a punch line. But these are easily overlooked with the amazing singing and dancing talent displayed in this feel-good musical about the time when the moral good was clear-cut, and if you were for segregation, you were the bad guy. 

And for those of you familiar with the film version of the musical, the second actis not the same, and you’ll have discussions over which is a better denouement. 

The African-American performers kick it up a notch when it’s their moment. Their singing is more powerful, the dancing is (sorry) much better, and you kind of wish every day were “Negro Day.” (There were regrettably more African-Americans on stage than in the audience.) In one short number the Motown girl group “The Dynamites” of Angel Burgess, Elaine Johnson & Lillian Kurtz, rocks the house with their vocal fireworks. 

Our heroine Tracy played by Victoria Morgan is the linchpin; the role was written for a girl with hefty talent and figure, and she fills it to the brim. Edna, her mom, is played by Marcus Klinger, who, to his and the director’s credit, affects no falsetto, but you believe he’s the mom. There is too much talent to name them all, but mention is in order for the duet by Jeff Draper and Marcus Klinger, Jason Hite’s heartthrob Elvis, and the multiple roles of the Authority Figures Derek Travis Collard and particularly Suzie Shepard. 

When I came home from the theatre, I sat down to get some ideas written out, but first I checked the NY Times online edition to see what’s going on and ironically, I found this headline on the front page: “RACE REMIXED: Shift Seen in Deep South’s Views on Mixed Marriage -- ‘Census data suggests that in the deep South, historically hostile to mixed-race couples, attitudes are shifting.’” by Susan Saulny. Fifty years can make a difference, and this will remind you—or educate you—about the good fight that was fought; hell, next thing you know, we’ll have a mixed race president! 

HAIRSPRAY Based on a film by John Waters, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman 

Presented by Contra Costa Musical Theatre  

At the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek 

Through April 16, 2011 

Directed by Scott Denison, Choreographed by Jennifer Perry, Musical Direction by Mark Hanson, 

Production Managements by Dustin Riggs & Suzanne Brandt, Directed by Scott Denison, Choreographed by Jennifer Perry, Musical Direction by Mark Hanson, Costumes by Marianna Ford, Hair & Wig design by Judy DIsbrow, Properties design by Debiie Shelley, Scenic Consultant Kelly Tighe, TD Russ Milligan, Sound design Jeff Mockus; Stage Manager Sofia Dertimanis. 

WITH: Victoria Morgan (Tracy), Marcus Klinger (Edna), Jeffrey Draper (Wilber), Noel Anthony (Corny Collins), Lynda DiVito (Velma), Jasmin Williams (Little Inez), Erica Richardson (Motormouth Mabel), Jason Hite (Link), Britt Danielle (Amber), Emily Trumble (Penny), Isaiah Tyrelle (Seaweed), (Derek Travis Collard Male Authority), Suzie Shepard (Female Authority), and Angel Burgess, Elaine Johnson & Lillian Kurtz (as the Dynamites). 

Male Ensemble: Ben Bogen (Sketch), Tony Conaty (Frankie), Lavale-William Davis (Duane), Alex Moore (Rocky), Anthony Finley (Thad), Justin Madfes (IQ), Derek Miller (Fender), Jason Pedroza (Brad), Brian Sterling (Gilbert), Kyle Valentine (Swing/Ensemble). 

Female Ensemble: Amanda Denison (Louanne), Ariel Ford (Tammy), Clarissa Forney (Tina), Aubrey Greenan (Shelly), Taylor Jones (Lorraine), Lillian Kurtz (Gloria), Adella Lott (Ronda), Caitlin O'Leary (Brenda), Lauren Rosi (Sandy), Kimille Williams-Stingily (Natalie),Catherine Williamson (Annette), Jessica Boynton (Swing/Ensemble).