Monday, March 7, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of Hairspray at Theatre By The Bay by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Hairspray at Theatre By The Bay (The Community Theatre Group of Bay Terrace Garden Jewish Center) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Book by Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman
Directed & Choreographed by Ovi Vargas
Musical Director & Accompanist: Alan Baboff
Theatre By The Bay
Bay Terrace Garden Jewish Center
13-00 209th Street
Bayside, New York 11360
Reviewed 3/5/16  

Hairspray, a musical based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, opened on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre on August 15, 2002, after a successful tryout at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre. In 2003, it received twelve Tony Award nominations and won eight in the following categories: Best Musical, Best Original Score (Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman), Best Direction of a Musical (Jack O'Brien), Best Book of a Musical (Mark O'Donnell & Thomas Meehan), Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (Harvey Fierstein), Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Marissa Jaret Winokur), Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical (Dick Latessa), and Best Costume Design (William Ivey Long). The production ran for more than six years, closing on January 4, 2009 after 2,642 performances. Hairspray, the 2007 movie, was based on the 2002 Broadway play.

The story takes place in 1962 Baltimore, Maryland, where Tracy Turnblad, an overweight High School teenager, dreams of dancing on The Corky Collins Show, a local television program. Even though not a traditional beauty, she learns a number of new dance moves from Seaweed J. Stubbs, a fellow student she met in detention. Her audition for an opening doesn't go well but when Corky Collins himself sees her dance while guest hosting a Sophomore Hop at her school (Patterson Park High School), he hires her to replace Brenda, who needed to take a leave of absence for 9 months (Corky promised his audience a replacement who would be "just as fun-loving but perhaps not quite as free-wheeling"). Tracy Turnblad becomes an overnight success and instantly becomes a contender for Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962 ("Ultra Clutch Hair Spray" is the sponsor of The Corky Collins Show - "Hey baby, you look like you could use a stiff one!"). Her main competition, Amber Von Tussle, is being promoted by her mother, Velma, who is the show's producer and who believes good parents need to point their kids in the "white" direction. Once a month, The Corky Collins Show has a Negro Day, hosted by Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed's mom. Tracy gets herself in trouble because while being interviewed, Corky asks her what her first act as President would be if she were ever elected, and her response is, "I'd make every day Negro Day." She went on to say, "I'm all for integration. It's the new frontier!"

While it is true the show is very preachy in terms of promoting integration and interracial dating (Penny says regarding Seaweed, "I've tasted chocolate and I'm never going back"), the primary message of this musical is that you should love your fellow man and treat him as you would like to be treated. While it is true that Tracy and Motormouth lead a march to integrate The Corky Collins Show, everything turns out for the best in this upbeat musical. Even Edna, Tracy Turnblad's mom (a "simple housewife of indeterminate girth" who feels like "a half-filled book of Green Stamps - beyond redemption" and who hasn't been out in public "since the Eisenhower administration"), regains her confidence and joins her daughter during the demonstration, eventually ending up in jail. When Tracy escapes from solitary confinement with the help of the love of her life, the very handsome and charismatic Link Larkin, the police warn the public to call in if they see the fugitive (the message ends with the instruction, "if phone service is not available, simply shoot to kill"). During the show, you will meet other colorful characters, such as Mr. Pinky, the owner of Pinky's Hefty Hide Away, the plus size dress shop; Wilbur Turnblad and his Har-de-Har Novelty Shop; and Velma Von Tussle, a racist, who in the end is assigned the task of promoting "a new line of hair products, "Ultra Glow" - beauty products for people of color."

This production of Hairspray features a very strong primary cast. Morgan Misk is absolutely tireless as Tracy Turnblad, the eternally optimistic, idealistic young teenager who loves to dance. She nailed "Good Morning Baltimore" and "I Can Hear The Bells." Niko Touros, a charismatic and talented young man, was perfect in the role of Link Larkin. His various stances and bright smile made him quite believable as the High School heartthrob who is one of the featured stars on The Corky Collins Show. He is also a fine actor and singer, as was evident with his rendition of "It Takes Two." Christine Hull was exceptional as Velma Von Tussle, successfully exposing the complexity of her character's motivations and beliefs. She did a wonderful job singing "Miss Baltimore Crabs," which is not an easy task. Jennifer Sanchez was Amber Von Tussle, her ambitious, jealous and possessive daughter, who desperately wants to be crowned Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962 and who is Tracy's rival for the affections of Link. Ms. Sanchez has a strong stage presence and was right for the role. 

The decision was made to cast Jean Ann Kump as Edna Turnblad. She was great in every respect but since she is a woman, a few lines in the play meant to get a laugh when the audience knows Edna is really a man, failed to be as funny. Robert Gold certainly looked the part of Wilbur Turnblad but his weak vocal instrument took away from the success of Edna & Wilbur's duet "You're Timeless To Me." Rebecca Cushman was delightful in the role of Penny Pingleton, Tracy's best friend. However, her instant attraction to Phoenix Gray's character, Seaweed J. Stubbs, seemed unlikely unless you are a believer in "love at first sight." It is still difficult to buy into the fact that Penny falls madly in love with a man three times her weight and twice her age. Still, I understand why they cast Phoenix Gray in that role. He has an excellent voice and is an accomplished actor. I had concerns about Pamela Merrill being able to successfully pull off the role of the dominant and well-grounded Motormouth Maybelle. I was pleasantly surprised by how well Ms. Merrill did and I could tell the audience was more than satisfied with her rendition of "I Know Where I've Been." The presence of an Asian-American female as a Corny Collins Council Member reminded me of the broad definition of "white" used under South Africa's former apartheid system where people from Japan and Taiwan were legally categorised as "white." Two minor actors on the Corny Collins Council who particularly impressed me were Jason Wieder, who played Brad, and Karen Kessler, who was Shelly. Jason continues to draw my attention as an actor dedicated to performing every part to the best of his abilities. Karen Kessler is a fireball of explosive energy with exceptional dancing, acting and singing skills. I look forward to seeing more of them in future productions. 

I saw the show on opening night and there were a few scenery and sound issues, which I am certain will be resolved soon. The biggest problem with the production was with the music, which dragged throughout the show, especially during the final number, "You Can't Stop The Beat." It was as if Alan Baboff, the Musical Director and his two Accompanists, were playing the music for the first time. The tempo needed to be faster and the beat of the last number needed to reflect that the future is coming and you are not going to be able to stop it. I felt like screaming, "Faster! Faster!" but the cast couldn't dance any faster because the music was being played too slowly! The musicians have an independent responsibility to properly prepare and practice for gigs (despite whatever they are being paid), and if  they are unable or unwilling to do that, then Theatre By The Bay should consider hiring musicians who take more pride in their work. If the Director told them to play the music at that pace, then I feel he should reconsider that decision. Hairspray is supposed to reflect explosive joy and only a fast-paced production can achieve that goal.

Theatre By The Bay's production of Hairspray is a triumph! High Hair! High Hopes! Great Acting! Inspirational Music! You can't help but leave with a broad smile on your face. I highly recommend you see this show. Bring all your non-racist, tolerant, open-minded friends, as well as anyone you know who enjoys a good musical. They will have a grand old time! Tickets cost $22.00 for adults and $20.00 for Seniors/Children. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit  

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