Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Can Do Attitude - Hairspray - Musical Review

Hairspray - The Max at Signature Theatre - Arlington, VA (Greater Washington D.C.) - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Based on the 1988 film Hairspray by John Waters, Directed by Eric Schaeffer, Choreographed by Karma Camp and Brianne Camp
Runs until Feb 5th 2012

You really can't stop the beat in your head once you've seen Signature's take on the musical Hairspray. Signature does it again on their tiny stage, filling it with an abundance of energy and sass on a superb looking set. Schaeffer, hot off his Broadway hit Follies, switches gears to a more fun and frothy musical that takes some serious issues of prejudice and overcomes it with positive can-do attitude, supplied in ample size in Carolyn Cole as our protagonist Tracy Turnblad.

Carolyn Cole is a true find as Tracy Turnblad, easily mixing sassy attitude with a lovability factor that is only topped by her comedic timing. Cole is VERY funny in all manners, from her demeanor and tiny laughs, to the sounds she makes as she bounces and twists around the stage, or her zippy line readings that add heart to her character and the story. Cole balances her Tracy just right, making her out-of-the-box-thinking believable while making her a champion of the outsiders without verging onto grating annoyance. It's hard not to smile when Cole's Tracy is on the stage, and when she moves, you can understand why Corny Collins is on her side.

Cole is surrounded by a terrific ensemble, probably the best set of enthusiastic and young dancers I've seen in this company. The choreography is probably the best I've seen come out from Karma Camp (this time co-choreographing with Brianne Camp), as it keeps the story flowing with a non-stop beat that gives the entire show its energy and helps sets the time and place.

The set by Daniel Conway (who also did the gorgeous set from Woolly Mammoth's In the Next Room, the Vibrator Play) , which I believe is a reconfiguration of his beautiful set from Sunset Boulevard, is simple but extremely effective, while leaving ample space for the dancing. The overhead crown of window and shop signs is a nice touch that really fills the room, making the audience feel right in 1962 Baltimore. Kathleen Geldard's costumes are fun and bright, and with sets that have an overall muted blues and pinks, it allows the characters to pop out from the stage.

Robert Aubry Davis makes a loving Mama Edna Turnblad, while Signature stalwart Harry A. Winter is an adorable Papa Wilber Turnblad.

Sherri L. Edelen (wonderfully opposite in Siganture's Walter Cronkite is Dead) is hysterical as the evil racist nemesis Velma Von Tussle, and really milks every look and walk and insult. Edelen takes a perfectly appropriate diva turn, while still emanating a mother's overbearing love for her "perfect" daughter Amber, played with wonderfully snootiness by Erin Driscoll.

Stephen Gregory Smith (so great in Signature's The Boy Detective Fails) is charming as ever as Corny Collins, the host of the dance show Tracy is trying to get onto.

James Hayden Rodriguez as Seaweed, is another great find. Handsome, smooth and charming, he's exactly what is required in Seaweed, and his connection with Lauren Williams' Penny Lou Pingleton is sweet and amusing. Williams herself is adorable and funny as Penny, Tracy's best friend.

Patrick Thomas Cragin is terrific as Link Larkin, the boy both Tracy and Amber like. Cragin has the voice and the moves of a leading man, and ironically, looks a little like a miniature version of Matthew Morrison, who originated Link on Broadway.

Nova Y. Payton rounds out the main cast, and while she doesn't appear until late in Act 1, she certainly makes up for it in every song she sings. With a quiet start, Payton nicely holds back in her diva songs, and in her dialogue delivery, giving the build up into her songs the patience they require. It makes Motormouth Maybell's "I Know Where I've Been" all the more moving.

I absolutely adored this production of Hairpsray, with my face grinning the entire time from cheek to cheek. A great response considering I felt indifferent to the show when I saw the Toronto sit-down of the original Broadway production. When the film version came out, I thought it was a vast improvement over the stage show, but Signature shows that the stage version can work with a terrific cast, a beautiful set, and an added intimacy Signature is known for. While the show inherently still has some tiny moments that don't quite work for me, (I still don't love the song "The Big Dollhouse", though here it's quite an amusing production number, nor the duet "(You're) Timeless to Me" which I never thought quite worked in any version I've seen), overall, its message of positive perseverance, it's buoyant songs and dancing, and a superb Signature production, easily won me over.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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