Music News & Reviews

June 28, 2013

‘Hairspray’ at Crown Uptown a fun, frolicking experience

“Hairspray” is a big, bold, bubbly musical that gets an audience up on its feet and cheering by the end, when it proves that “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

“Hairspray” is a big, bold, bubbly musical that gets an audience up on its feet and cheering by the end, when it proves that “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

Set in 1962 Baltimore, the Tony Award-winning best musical of 2002 – based on John Waters’ cult movie – is a nostalgically silly trip down memory lane in its tribute to gaudy hairstyles, fashions and dances. It’s also a sweetly romantic tale of both first love and enduring love.

But the show – music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan – is also inspirational as it tells of a teen girl who just wants to be on a TV dance party show after school but who ends up shattering segregation barriers so white and black kids can dance together to the music they all love.

The new production directed by Matthew Rumsey that just opened at Crown Uptown Theatre is a colorful, rousing, richly sung triumph that will likely be one of the highlights of the summer, if not the year. Despite a couple of minor body-microphone problems opening night that left one person’s voice unbalanced with the others, it’s a constant crowd-pleaser.

Wichita native Emma Craig, who is now based in New York, is spot-on as Tracy Turnblad, a plus-size teen with big hair and a big heart to match just trying to fit in with the cool kids. Craig has a powerful, likable presence that invites us to have fun with her, but not at her expense. She wears her heart on her vocal sleeve, whether being wistful in “I Can Hear the Bells” (after falling for a class heartthrob) or whiny in “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” or eternally optimistic in the anthemic “Good Morning, Baltimore.”

Craig, a veteran of both Music Theatre of Wichita and Music Theatre for Young People, is also fast and light on her feet for the many production numbers. She doesn’t merely keep up, she sets the pace for all-out takes on period dances like the Pony, the Monkey and the Funky Chicken (cleverly combined by choreographer Gigi Gans). She’s a dynamo who seems to create rather than use energy.

Kyle Vespestad as Tracy’s big-boned, self-conscious and reclusive mom, Edna, is also a showstopper who is both sharp-tongued and overprotective but absolutely lovable. The role is traditionally played by a man – Harvey Fierstein on Broadway, John Travolta in the movie musical – in tribute to Waters’ original star, drag queen Divine.

Vespestad goes from frumpy, wallflower housewife to strutting glamour queen in the course of the show and carries it off with comfortable, credible grace. He’s playing Edna as a woman, not as a wink-wink man in a dress. He has a deep voice that adds comic punch to certain lines of his songs (“Big Doll House,” “Big, Blonde and Beautiful”) and, from his dancer’s background, gives the hefty Edna a spring to her step.

And the contrast between Vespestad’s mountainous Edna and Luke Johnson as Edna’s exceedingly lanky hubby, Wilbur, makes them the cutest couple on the stage for their duet “You’re Timeless to Me.” Johnson, with a bit of a husbandly leer, croons to Edna while steering her in a vaudeville soft-shoe routine around the floor. They are such a delight that the audience demanded an encore.

Christi Moore is in full-throated high dudgeon as Velma Von Tussle, the bigoted producer of the TV dance show who is afraid that likable Tracy might eclipse the popularity of her own daughter, Amber. Moore is like a Disney villain: flamboyantly evil but deliciously entertaining.

Florida-based Nathalie Hostin is a sassy, seductive presence as Motormouth Maybelle, record shop owner and host of the monthly so-called “Negro Day” on the TV show, who supports Tracy’s integration plans. Hostin particularly shines in the powerful gospel reflection “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Colin Anderson does a solid turn as Tracy’s hunky but narcissistic boyfriend, Link, especially in his love song “It Takes Two.” Janet Wiggins is a nerdy, gawky hoot as Penny, Tracy’s best friend who is hilariously transformed by love. Sidney DuPont is in good voice and limber dancing form as Penny’s forbidden first love. And Ashley Lauren, girding herself in pink – almost like Barbie armor – is amusing as Tracy’s waspish, air-headed rival Amber.

The versatile, abstract set by award-winning Gregory Crane is an eye-catching take on 1960s hot pastels (shocking pink, turquoise, lime green, harvest gold), with polka dots and stripes running rampant. The costumes in the same eye-popping color palette by Dora Arbuckle add considerably to the stylized period feel.

And the wigs/hairstyles by Darian Leatherman – in keeping with the show’s title – add an exaggerated authenticity, from nuke-proof beehives to bouncy pageboys to increasingly larger Jackie Kennedy bouffants.

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