By R. Eli Townsend
If musicals are all about feeling good, ‘Hairspray’ is a double-dipped cone with sprinkles on top. It combines dance-in-your-seat music, a message of racial equality, and an entertaining story about accepting yourself. Thingamajig Theatre Company’s production, opening Friday June 23, at Pagosa Springs Center of the Arts, is an irresistible flood of good cheer.
For its second offering of the 2017 Summer Repertory Season, the company has assembled the largest cast in its 7-year production history, rounding up 25 professional actors — from both coasts to the islands of Jamaica — to dance, sing, and display nearly every hairstyle of the early 1960s.
‘Hairspray’ is equal parts inspiration and entertainment. It includes two love stories, a social protest, a nasty villain, a woman who needs to accept her appearance, a teen who already accepts hers, and more than a dozen high school kids who learn how not to judge others by their race or looks. Stitching these plot lines together is the ever-optimistic Tracy, an overweight girl with a best friend, loving parents and crazy hopes of joining the cast of clean-cut kids on “The Corny Collins Show” a televised after-school dance party akin to “American Bandstand.”
Set in Baltimore in 1962, the musical is based on John Waters’ 1988 movie and embeds some powerful messages in its bouncy tunes and upbeat story. Tracy’s mother, Edna, is played in drag; the kids disobey their parents and even land in jail. But every time they break a rule, they do it in the name of love, racial harmony or both.
“The Corny Collins Show” features white kids dancing with joy but restraint to the latest white pop music. Once a month, though, the show announces that it’s “Negro Day” and plays far more popular R&B. When Tracy is tossed into school detention for the rule-breaking height of her teased hair, the ostracized black kids give her dance lessons. It’s love at first shimmy. Why, she wonders, is Negro Day only once a month? Why can’t black kids appear on the show?
Tracy dreams big, and convinces others to join her integration scheme, but ‘Hairspray’ isn’t a fairy tale. The kids initially fail, and the real message concerns how hard it is to keep trying. That idea sparks the show’s rallying number, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” sung by Motormouth Maybelle, her kids and friends.
Tracy’s quest still leaves time for falling in love with the coolest boy in the TV cast, infuriating his shallow girlfriend and her take-no-prisoners stage mother. And Tracy’s white best friend, Penny, falls for Seaweed, Motormouth’s son who’s got some great dance moves.
The musical premiered on Broadway in 2002, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman. It won eight Tony Awards, including one for best musical. The music is instantly familiar without being derivative, a true homage to the ballads, early rock and silky harmonies of the era.
Thingamajig Theatre Company’s gallery theater space makes a big musical like ‘Hairspray’, feel almost infectious – the music and action are so close and personal, it’s hard to stay seated during this high-octane musical that never takes a break. Director Michael Thomas Walker (who starred as the original Edna Turnblad in the 1st National Tour) and choreographer Paul Thiemann work wonders. The musical numbers come off as big-time blockbusters, even when the cast must spill into the aisles.
Thiemann’s choreography draws on ’60s dance styles with originality; he doesn’t take us to the museum of pre-Beatles dance steps but chooses the moves that get our toes tapping and feet moving. Thiemann provides the lifts, dips and fast-moving formations that make a musical great. Performing everything from cool slides to exuberant kicks, the cast bursts with dance-all-night energy.
Walker’s staging is clever and utilizes the unique space well. He and scenic designer Eric Chamness establish multiple, fully-realized locations while making a virtue of the intimate space. Walker sets a pace that lets the passions in the story drive the action and brings out the high spirits of the performers.
Under the guidance of music director Boni McIntyre, the cast belts out tunes that hardly require the provided amplification (wireless mics) and makes us wish we never had to leave the diverse and colorful 1960s.
The cast blends some Thingamajig favorites, along with a host of out-of-town newcomers. Marion Bienvenu firmly commands the stage as Tracy. Her wide smile, bright eyes and face made for the flip hairdo she wears compliments her Broadway caliber vocals and effervescent optimism. Bienvenu’s openhearted energy is a joy to watch and reason enough to attend ‘Hairspray’.
As her beau, Link Larkin, Luke Hefner has the dreamy, half-closed eyes of a heartthrob and, true to the role, knows how to show prom-king self-confidence. If you’ve seen Thingamajig’s ‘Aida’, which opened just last week, you know what kind of vocal treat you’re in store for. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better leading man who’s equally as likable.
Ian Lah plays good-guy Corny Collins with a wonderful showboating style that truly belongs on TV. Local favorite, Dennis Elkins dons wig and housecoat to play Tracy’s mom; he pulls off drag with many, many laughs. Elkins shows us, he’s a master of versatility whether he’s playing last year’s Colonel Jessup in ‘A Few Good Men’ or nailing his dance steps in heels as Edna.
Dan Morrison returns from his previous roles as Pharaoh (‘Aida’) and Alan (‘God of Carnage’) and turns a huge twist as Wilbur Turblad, Tracy’s mother and Edna’s loving, jokester husband. His duet with Elkins is a lesson in character work and he turns an oft forgotten role into someone you crave seeing on-stage.
As Motormouth Maybelle, Jamaican star Shuga Henry possesses all the power and complimentary tenderness you’d hope for. Her vocals are show-stopping moments and instantly create sympathy for her struggles. Playing her daughter, Little Inez, Sarita Amani Nash nails the hopeful dreams of youth yearning for acceptance. Nash is also featured with Jameelah Leaundra and Gabrielle Beckford as the Greek Chorus inspired Dynamite trio. With slick choreography and outrageous costumes, they provide a wonderful backdrop for many of the show’s musical numbers.
Amber Von Tussle, the spurned girlfriend, is caught in the crosscurrents of spite and her goody-goody persona. Sara Burks plays her with delicious nuance and will wow you with her dance. As her mother, Velma, Hannah Zilber steals each scene she’s in with her spot-on 60’s Beauty Queen and a speaking voice that screams Karen from NBC’s ‘Will & Grace’, she belts out a revenge plan with brutal glee, capping her song with villainous delight.
As Penny, Tori Gresham is all awkward knees and elbows until she learns some smooth moves and confidence from Seaweed. Sheldon Steele II plays that character with inspiring exuberance. He shows just how high dancing can raise the human spirit. Together, they are a delight to watch.
The production standards for the show are top-notch, especially the multitudes of costumes by Adrienne Young. Together with some rentals from Southern Alabama Rep, Young accurately re-creates the vibrant feel of the 60’s while adding the needed bubble-gum to make the performers “pop”.
The production is nonstop fun from the opening number to the curtain call. The pop songs are full of fluffy goodness because the world once demanded it. They really don’t have an expiration date. With a finale about how the world keeps changing, the show looks backward to remind us how to look forward. Its closing message is perfectly titled “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” and it’s just the tune to hum on your way home.
Thingamajig Theatre Company presents ‘Hairspray’. Rated PG. Directed by Michael Thomas Walker. Opening tonight, Friday, June 23 at Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts, playing through August 27.
For tickets, call Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts at 970-731-SHOW (7469) or CLICK HERE for online purchases and calendar dates.