OGDEN – From the creative team of Mark O’Donnell, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, and Thomas Meehan, the Broadway musical Hairspray gives audiences a front row seat to the American civil rights movement in progress in the 1960’s. As teenaged Tracy Turnblad searches for her own confidence among the popular, and traditionally thin, Council Members on the Corny Collins variety show, she is equally willing to fight for the opportunity to dance publicly with her Negro friends. Unlike others who are afraid of what they might lose, Tracy sees only what the world could gain by taking the groundbreaking steps to desegregate. In the end, Tracy’s enthusiasm and courage positively impact the lives of her friends and enemies alike.
In this production at The Ziegfeld Theater, the whole of Baltimore seemed to orbit around the indelible energy of Tracy Turnblad (played by Emily Woods). In the opening number “Good Morning Baltimore,” choreographer Kacee Neff created movement showing how Tracy unknowingly affected the lives of each person she passed on the street. For the character, this power was written into the script; however, Woods affected each actor in much the same way, infusing each scene with her personality and lifting the actors with whom she shared the stage. This was particularly true in “It Takes Two,” a song which should have been a stand out moment for her love interest Link Larkin (played by Nathan Allen Vaughn). While his performance lacked edge, Woods’s quirky shoulder shrugs and subtle asides carried Link through the number.
While no one quite seemed to match Tracy’s energy, I enjoyed the sincerity and consistency of several other characters. As Tracy’s sheltered best friend Penny Pingleton, Eliza Haynie delivered an endearing reluctance that was nothing short of adorable. Throughout the production, she intentionally kept her elbows nearly straight while still allowing her hands to flop to punctuate her dialogue. Each of Tracy’s parents, Kevin Ireland as Wilbur Turnblad and Andrew J. Cole as Edna Turnblad, brought tender and believable chemistry in spite of the traditional casting of a man in the role of Tracy’s mother. Of all of the onstage couples, the Turnblads’ relationship seemed the most real. In addition, the song “Without Love” was a high point for each of the teen lovers including Tracy, Link, Penny, and Seaweed (played by J. J. Freeman), who delivered the song with both power and conviction.
Director Michael Nielsen took a non-traditional risk in casting Dee Tua’one in the role of Motormouth Maybelle, despite his being neither the expected gender nor ethnicity. While this casting initially left me feeling uncomfortable, confused, and checking my program mid-song, I forgot all my doubts when Tua’one performed Motormouth’s soulful solo, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” In that moment, I didn’t care who was in the dress as I felt the song’s message clearly resonating in the otherwise silent theater.
Unfortunately, not all the characters were able to reach me in such a sincere way, as I found many of the other roles more akin to a Saturday Night Live sketch character than a believable representation of a 1960’s American. Such was the case in the roles played by Cameron Kapetanov (as Harriman F. Spritzer/Principal/Mr. Pinky) and Becky Cole (who understudied the roles of Prudy Pingleton/Gym Teacher/Matron). While I appreciated each for his or her attempt to differentiate the characters, the exaggerated physical movements did nothing to lend credibility to the scenes. Despite being a comedic musical, the subject matter and themes are actually quite serious; I found these farcical portrayals to be just short of disrespectful. Finally, Cherilyn Bacon Eagar as Velma Von Tussle, an aging beauty reluctant to pass the torch to her daughter, created such a forced caricature that she frequently drew focus from the important moments of a scene. This was most noticeable as she pulled a variety of distracting faces during “I Can Hear the Bells.”
Sadly, difficulties on the production end also occasionally overshadowed otherwise great moments. Tracy’s microphone cut in and out throughout the entire production, while the one assigned to Malia Nixon (playing Little Inez) didn’t work at all. Thankfully, Woods was able to compensate for this with her own projection, but I was disappointed not to be able to hear Little Inez at all. If her singing voice was anywhere near as great as her dancing, I definitely missed out. And while Becky Cole’s costume design was stunningly detailed right down to matching custom jackets for the Council Members, a few items missed the mark in execution. First, the skirt of Tracy’s first costume tended to sag a little low, revealing the waistband of the black shorts she wore underneath. Second, Eagar’s brazier showed throughout the majority of the scenes in which she wore a low-cut red wrapped dress. Third, a faux pregnant belly hung beneath the overcoat of one ensemble member, jiggling visibly throughout the dances. While the actress gave great characterization to this pregnant Baltimorean, the cloth belly was an unfortunate distraction. Finally, while vintage commercials designed by Caleb Perry were a clever way to pass a scene change, these segments were longer than necessary. As soon as the scenery had been changed, I found myself wanting a DVR remote so I could skip ahead.
Despite these distractions, I thoroughly enjoyed production numbers such as “The Nicest Kids in Town” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Neff’s choreography was physically demanding, requiring each of the Council Members to deliver a synchronized cardio workout while singing in balanced harmonies. I was particularly impressed by how cleanly and crisply the dancers executed each quick movement and by the variety Neff incorporated throughout the Council numbers. I also enjoyed the full sound that musical director Hailey Weeks was able to create with a relatively small cast. The number was appropriate for the space on stage, and the sound in no way suffered.
I enjoyed so many aspects of this production, but in the end it was Tracy herself who made me want to “Run and Tell That.” It was Tracy, the character, who reminded me of the importance of confidence and courage. And it was Woods who fueled that character, keeping her alive on the stage and in my memory even after I left the theater. If you’re in the mood for a not-too-serious portrayal of a serious moment in American history, don’t miss this Ziegfeld production.