Hannah Block USO Second Street Stage
120 South 2nd Street
11/19 – 20, 26 – 27, 8 p.m.; 21 and 28, 3 p.m. • $15 – $18
Most are familiar with the cult classic by John Waters, which also turned into a Tony-winning Broadway play. It’s a flashy show of grooving and moving, with the timeless lesson of acceptance. The show takes on prejudices of all types with a light-hearted, snarky edge, delivered through witty banter between characters and pop-tastic, R&B-laced songs. “Hairspray” has a beautiful message: Love thy neighbor, no matter their color or size, and with the structure of the show, it’s delivered without the usual heavy-handed proselytizing. In 1960’s Baltimore, morality is fun!
“Fun”: an adjective aptly describing the mood in the Hannah Block USO building last Friday. The cast of “Hairspray” clearly enjoyed every moment onstage, and the audience laughed as much as they clapped. As fun as it may have been, the production just teetered on the edge of awesome, sometimes making it hard with which to fully connect. It was almost there, in all aspects: singing, acting, lighting.
The voices in the cast were varied: some strong and soulful, others weak and gritty, but most were just what someone would expect to find in any musical production: run-of-the mill, show-tune-y pitches. Corny Collins, played by Andy Motley, had an almost hoarse quality to his singing, but his speaking voice was wonderfully robust and perky, bringing the T.V. show host an authentic liveliness. Mike Hartle as Wilbur Turnblad was charismatic and comedic but needed more finesse in his singing ability. The main leads, Sara McBrayer, Tim Marriott, Laura Teachey and Roxann Hubbard, all boasted smooth and enjoyable voices. Albeit, there was no exemplary definition to any of them.
Diedre Parker, a.k.a. Ms. Motormouth Maybelle, made up for any downfall in the production, hands down. When she opened her mouth, soulful bliss permeated the entire ensemble. Boasting the range and depth of a diva, she was the showstopper. Amber Sheets as Velma Von Tussel was another saving grace, as her syrupy, sing-song chords punched power beyond the blasé.
What the actors may have lacked in vocal strength, they possessed in their craft. The chemistry onstage was undeniable through every relationship. Hilariously enough, the strongest mix came through Matthew Cope and Mike Hartle, the homologous matched Turnblads. Tim Marriott as Link Larkin was the sweet-talking crooner-spoof of a cheese-ball played with suave ease. Capers Beddoes’ embodiment of Penny Lou Pingleton showcased natural comedic timing.
The only place the cast faltered was in their use of body movement. The audience understood Tracy Turnblad’s ambitious and excited. We understood the salacious rendezvous of Velma Von Tussel. We got Penny Lou’s awkward ditziness. The dialogue made that all very clear; yet the actresses over-exaggerated the postural counterparts as if they were dancing out a hyperbole. Sheets were thrown around Von Tussel’s hips like a pinball stuck between bouncers, and Beddoes’ constant movement seemed exhausting. I never saw Sara McBrayer change Tracy Turnblad’s facial expression, but maybe I did not notice since she was always staring wide-eyed at the ceiling in melodramatic excitement.
All quibbles aside, the show’s set was wonderful. Painted in bright, eye-popping colors, it kept the playful vibe in full swing and the use of roll-in props changed scenes drastically and effectively. My favorite part was the creative way director Kevin Lee-Y Green portrayed the Turnblads watching “The Corny Collins Show.” Stage left, a mini-set showcased their drab living room—ironing board, armchair and TV in check. The actors sat attentively in front of the T.V. and reacted to what they were “watching,” which was happening real-time behind them on the main stage.
If the lighting had been operated differently, the set would have been perfection. I can understand the decision to use only a spotlight on the main person singing and to leave the rest of the cast blacked out in obscurity. Though it should draw a strong audience connection, all it did was distract and confuse, as did the oddly fade-ins and -outs during random scenes. I chalked them up to technical difficulties.
Still, there is a monumentally impressive factor running throughout the entire production: Kevin Lee-y Green’s choreography. It was energetic, percussive, pleasing and used up the entire stage. Most exciting of all: It was well executed. The cast pulled it off in tune and on time, moving together as one rhythmic force.
The toe-tapping, catchy tunes and Green’s exciting dance sequences make the show worth seeing. In all, “Hairspray” gave enough on the greener side of the grass to bring us something we can all use: a good time.