Hairspray: A Spritz of Fun
Good morning, Baltimore! And howdy-do again to Hairspray, the wholesome American musical comedy whose low-art origins as a non-musical 1988 film by gross-out king John Waters have almost been obliterated in its evolution into family-friendly entertainment. First there was the clean-up for its transition to the Broadway stage, then the big-budget movie musical starring John Travolta in a fat suit and dress, then the national tours and now local productions like the roof-raising one going on at Fort Worth's Casa Mañana. (Look for four more incarnations at smaller local theaters, including Collin College, over the next 12 months.)
Hairspray offers low-comedy schlock of the highest order, made palatable to audiences who've never heard of John Waters. Waters, socking away royalty checks, gets the last hardy-har, knowing he's responsible for elevating a man in drag (in his film it was Divine; at Casa, it's local actor David Coffee) into one of musical theater's most beloved mothers. Edna Turnblad, huge, angry and agoraphobic until she's liberated by "race music," is a sympathetic maternal icon right up there with Gypsy's Mama Rose (who is acknowledged twice in Hairspray).
With an infectious score that sticks like extra-strength Aqua Net, Hairspray is Motown-influenced and more fun than most of the new Broadway shows based on movies. The Casa Mañana production, directed by Casey Hushion, explodes onto the wide thrust stage in the 1,000-seat auditorium. Out they come, dozens of cute young singers and dancers, dressed in Popsicle colors, bopping through choreographer Josh Rhodes' interpretations of the dances kids did on TV shows like American Bandstand in 1962. From moment one, you know you're in for a good time.
Hairspray's Corny Collins Show is the Baltimore version of the afterschool TV dance party and it's where 16-year-old Tracy Turnblad (played by Texas State University student Jennifer Foster) wants to be. (Growing up in Dallas in the '60s, we had our own Corny Collins in DJ Ron Chapman, who hosted Sump'n Else, which aired live on Channel 8 from a studio at NorthPark every weekday afternoon. I still remember the names of the show's four teenage go-go girls.)
Tracy and her bestie Penny Pingleton (Laura Wetsel) aspire to dance "The Madison" with cool kids like Seaweed Stubbs (the terrific Donell Foreman), but don't understand why the black high schoolers are allowed on TV only on "Negro Day." How tubby Tracy inspires the desegregation of the TV show, finds the boy of her dreams in handsome Link Larkin (John Arthur Greene) and snags the title of Miss Hairspray 1962 is the hair-thin plot of this piece. Hairspray is mostly about its 20 musical numbers, all relentlessly upbeat even when they're singing about loneliness, discrimination and other insults to the human condition. (The book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan manages to work in some of the weirdness of Waters' original dialogue, but not enough to notice.)
Composer Marc Shaiman's music and his lyrics written with Scott Wittman capture the rhythm and sound of the period, with some snatches of sneaky wit and an extra dose of Broadway belting where needed. Tracy's opener, "Good Morning, Baltimore," has her skipping through her ugly neighborhood, singing, "I see all those party lights shining ahead. So someone invite me before I drop dead!" Around her, playful rats, junkies and pervy flashers pirouette as cheerfully as the mice and bluebirds around Disney's Cinderella.
Jennifer Foster, wearing a wig almost as tall as she is, makes a likable, plucky Tracy, and she has a dynamite set of pipes. All the Turnblads in this production are aces, with Coffee doing nothing to disguise his usual gruff delivery as Edna, which only makes it funnier. "You're Timeless to Me," the second act song-and-dance duet featuring Edna and nebbish hubby Wilbur (Doug LoPachin), is a sweet moment with not a hint of winky-wink about Edna being played by a man.
Hometown talent outnumbers the imports in this Hairspray. Cara Statham Serber, familiar from starring roles in musicals at Dallas Theater Center and WaterTower Theatre, screws up her pretty puss as the delightfully sour villainess, the TV station owner and avowed racist Velma von Tussle. As record store diva Motormouth Maybelle, Fort Worth singer and actress Sheran Goodspeed Keyton shivers the shingles on the Act 1 closer, "Big, Blonde and Beautiful."
The large dance corps, featuring expert hoofers Jeremy Dumont and Darius-Anthony Robinson, is strong and tight. Pianist Aimee Hurst Bozarth leads the smart onstage band.
The only weak cast member is Sainty Reid as Velma's pushy daughter and Tracy's nemesis, Amber von Tussle. On a stage crowded with polished musical comedy pros, Reid stands out for all the wrong reasons. And since she's about the same plus-size as the actress playing Tracy, her character's size-ist insults don't work. A check of the program reveals that Reid's parents are big-time Casa Mañana board members. There's something sort of Waters-esque about that intriguing bit of backstage subplot.
Out in North Carrollton at tiny Theatre 166, the show Elvis August will teleport you to the mecca of cornball entertainment, Branson, Missouri, for a couple of hours. Performer Jack Foltyn, a four-piece combo and a quartet of back-up dancing girls in skimpy lingerie offer a different slice of Elvis-iana every weekend until Labor Day. More tribute than impersonation, Foltyn's pec-baring, butt-shaking take on the King is something to behold.
He could use some transition material between songs, dialogue telling a story or four about Elvis instead of just a mumbled "What're we doing next?" to the band, but when he's singing and dancing, Foltyn's a force of nature. On the night reviewed, there were 22 people in the audience, but Foltyn, clad in skintight black leather pants and jacket (no shirt), could have been headlining the Hollywood Bowl. He goes big and he keeps going until he's as slick with sweat as a wet seal.
Foltyn rips through old standards: "Hound Dog," "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Blue Suede Shoes." There are the odd ones like "In the Ghetto" and some non-Elvis picks like "Play That Funky Music" and "Tutti Frutti."
As the tattoo-festooned older ladies in the front row screamed and grabbed Foltyn for kisses, Elvis August became something other than a rock 'n' roll nostalgia revue. Flicking sweat from his chest, spanking his own tight buns, Foltyn cranked up the sexy stuff. When the band's not drowning him out (sound levels need adjusting), this guy can really sing. But he knows the focus is on his bod. He's Elvis Presley by way of the Chippendale Academy of Erotic Terpsichore.
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