When most people think about just who creates a Broadway musical, probably the first names that pop into their heads are those of its composer and lyricist. Next would probably come the book writer, whose words link the songs in what is hopefully an interesting and cohesive plotline. Still, regardless of how great what’s “written down” is, no musical could possibly hit the jackpot without a fabulous director and choreographer helming the enterprise.
Hairspray is no exception. Though Marc Shaiman’s catchy tunes, Scott Wittman and Shaiman’s clever lyrics, and Marc O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s hilarious book could hardly make for a better adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 cult hit movie of the same name, Hairspray might never have been a 2642-performance smash without its Tony-winning director Jack O’Brien and Tony-nominated choreographer Jerry Mitchell.
In fact, for the first ten or so years of its life, anybody who attended a performance of Hairspray (i.e. on Broadway or on tour) saw O’Brien’s and Mitchell’s original conception, along with the creations of the show’s original Broadway set, costume, and lighting designers.
Not so audiences now cheering PCPA’s exciting regional production up in picturesque Solvang. The songs and words may be the same, but pretty much everything else is new from the ground up, first and foremost the creative work of its brilliant director-choreographer Michael Jenkins, a man who (at the risk of spouting a cliché) makes the show very much his own.
Hairspray, as you may recall, tells the tale of petite but plus-sized teenager Tracy Turnblad's dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a 1962 Baltimore version of American Bandstand. Despite those extra pounds and a then shockingly progressive attitude towards integration, Tracy does indeed make that dream come true, leaving her only two more tasks to accomplish: a) making “Negro Day” more than a once-a-month Corny Colins Show event and b) winning the heart of local teen heartthrob Link Larkin. Since Hairspray is the quintessential happy ending musical, there’s little doubt about our pleasingly plump heroine’s success in both endeavors.
Jenkinson’s directorial and choreographic touches are everywhere, from the five-minute show-stopping full-cast opening number “Good Morning Baltimore,” to the addition of a three-member girl group (a la The Supremes or Dreamgirls’ The Dreams) to back up song after song in true 1960s style, to making “Without Love” a fantasy dance sequence in which Tracy’s dream of an integrated world where interracial couples can feel free to love becomes reality, if only in a song. The director-choreogrpher’s smaller touches are too numerous to mention, but serve to make this Hairspray a special one indeed.
This being said, no Hairspray can do John Waters justice without an Edna to fill the movie’s cross-dressing original’s “Divine” shoes, and in the sensational Sam Zeller, this Hairspray hits the bull’s-eye. Looking like the lovechild of Lucille Ball and Jane Russell on steroids, Zeller’s stellar turn recalls Lucy’s comedic genius and Russell’s glamazon looks. Larger than life (as any Edna worth her salt must be) yet never sacrificing the big, blond(ish), and beautiful lady’s tender side, the vocally blessed Zeller makes the part his own—and then some.
Josh Machamer’s charmingly nerdy Wilbur Turnblad is the spouse any Edna would rejoice in calling her own. John Keating gives teen heartthrob Link Larkin a sweet goofiness that proves irresistible. A divalicious Allison F. Rich sinks her claws into Velma Von Tussle with a glare that would freeze a bonfire. Cicily Daniels makes for a powerhouse Motormouth Maybellle, never more so than when she brings down the house with “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
There’s also Jiilian Van Niel’s delicious mean girl of an Amber Von Tussle, Natasha Harris’s delightful dork of a Penny Pingleton, and Ozioma Akagaha’s dynamic fireball of a Little Inez. George Walker melds Dick Clark and Elvis in a winning turn as TV dance show host Corny Collins, and charismatic Sterling Sulieman makes it no wonder Penny falls under his bad boy spell.
Elizabeth Stuart and Billy Breed steal scenes right and left in a bevy of cameo roles including Penny’s Mom Prudy, a butch gym teacher, and a Teutonic prison matron (hers) and Ultra Clutch Hairspray executive Harriman F. Spritzer, Tracy’s high school principal, and Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway owner Mr. Pinky (his).
As the teenager around whom all the above revolves, a terrific Bree Murphy gives Tracy oodles of energy, spunk, and verve, but comes across too old for the role when surrounded by cast members in their early 20s, and especially in romantic scenes opposite an awkwardly younger looking Keating.
Executing one exhilaratingly choreographed Jenkinson dance number after another are the supremely talented and indefatigable ensemble: Ahnastasia Albert (Brenda), Nohealani Alisa Cambra (Lorraine), Anthony Chatmon (Stooie), Urè Egbuho (Cindy), Tracey Leigh Freeman (Shelley), Layli Kayhani (Tammy), Nikko Kimzin (Brad), Calvin Seabrooks (Gilbery), George P. Scott (Thad), Daniel J. Self (Fender), Glenn M. Snellgrose II (IQ), Steven Michael Stone (Sketch), and Katie Worley (Lou Ann). Performing all those girl group three-part harmonies are the stellar Joanna Jones, Kathryn McCreary, and Katrina McGraw as The Dynamites.
Musical director Callum Morris gets the entire troupe singing splendidly to prerecorded tracks, the show’s fifteen-piece orchestra sounding pretty darn close to live thanks to sound designer Elisabeth Rebel. Scenic designer DeAnne Kennedy has created a colorful multi-location set with a nicely cartoonlike flair, a design which provides plenty of flexibility for Jenkinson’s vision. Frederick P. Deeben’s costumes are vivid, fun recreations of early ‘60s fashions, with special snaps for Edna’s extra-tall plus-size gowns. Jennifer ‘Z’ Zornow lights this all to perfection. Aleah Van Woert is stage manager.
With the marriage equality movement making headlines these days, Hairspray serves as a reminder that not too long ago, interracial couples like Penny and Seaweed faced similar prejudice and injustice. That a musical does so in the most entertaining way possible, and particularly in the fresh new staging being given by PCPA, makes Hairspray much more than just your average, everyday Broadway hit. Anyone who makes the trek up to Solvang is in for a real treat.
Festival Theater, 420 2nd Stree, Solvang.
July 12, 2011
Photos: Clinton Bersuch