Sunday, July 7, 2019

"Hairspray -- The Broadway Musical": Day 8, Play 8, Theatre Eddys Goes to the 2019 Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hairspray – The Broadway Musical
Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan (Book); Marc Shaiman (Music);
Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman (Lyrics)

Katy Geraghty, Daniel T. Parker & Cast
It is only fair to open this review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Hairspray – The Broadway Musical with a warning:  From the opening “Good Morning Baltimore” to the finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” multiple earworms will be implanted deep within your being that will ring forth in your ears for days to come.  Be further cautioned that for at least a week or more, you will likely out of the blue begin cutting the rug with some too-cool, ‘60s dance moves – no matter where you are or who is watching. 

These are the necessary hazards of having one helluva good time at the OSF Hairspray production that is Broadway-plus in every rock-n-roll, rollicking respect.  But even more important to note:  You will be moved by a production that also reminds us what it means to be the despised, ridiculed ‘other’ in a majority, prejudiced society – whether the difference is of skin color, economic class, size of body, or physical/mental special needs.  And finally, as you leave wanting to burst into song with your heart pounding like a drum, you will be inspired having witnessed what it looks like for those disenfranchised by the majority to stand up, take charge, and make change happen.  What more could one ask from one momentous, good-time evening of live theatre?

Tracy Turnblad is a high schooler – shorter and bigger than most of her classmates – whose fondest dream is to be selected as one of the dancers on the local TV, teen dance program, The Corny Collins Show.  That a girl who constantly suffers the brunt of cruel, hallway bullying by Corny’s blondest and supposedly prettiest dancer and Tracy’s classmate, Amber Von Tussle, does not phase Tracy at all.  After all, this is a girl who greets one and all on her way to school with the widest of smiles singing “Good Morning Baltimore” with an optimistic outlook that zings with the sheer joy of life. – saluting total strangers bustling to work, kids from the ‘other side of the tracks,’ homeless drunks, and even two, jolly rats popping out of the sewer.

Jenna Bainbridge & Katy Geraghty
Proudly sporting a globe-shaped crown of hair that is ratted and sprayed to the hilt, Katy Geraghty is a Tracy who exudes confidence, zeal, and determination to the hilt.  Not only does she demonstrate time and again an ability to belt exuberantly the 1960’s-era songs written by Marc Shaiman (music and lyrics) and Scott Wittman (lyrics), this Tracy can dance up a storm in every style from the Freddie to the Frug, from Shimmy to Swim, from Twist to Watusi.  And while every teen has her moments of being dramatic, when Tracy fawns and falls over the heartthrob of her life – Corny Collins and Elvis-wanna-be star, Link Larkin – every time she sees him her reactions are like she was in the middle of an earthquake in their intensity, just begging for a camera’s close-up on the black-and-white screen of a console TV with its 15-inch screen. 

Jonathan Luke Stevens, Katy Geraghty & Other Cast Members
Jonathan Luke Stevens plays the ever-suave, perfect-looking Link, who in fact does have the shakes and sounds of The King as demonstrated when he grooves out in “It Takes Two,” a number where Tracy joins him after sneaking onto his TV spot as the weekly dance program is showing live.  As she breaks into spasms being near him, the two are soon singing in electrifying harmony an ending that is topped with an exclamatory kiss that surprises both of them.  That smacker also sends shockwaves through all of Baltimore as this over-sized girl not only makes it big-time on a show usually starring only those much more petite, but she makes out with the hunky star himself for all the world to see!

Even though Link has been the boyfriend of the self-centered, bad-mannered, Hollywood-bound Amber (a convincingly obnoxious and hateful Leanne A. Smith), Link begins to find much more beauty in Tracy.  He even is warming up to and liking the idea that Tracy’s best friends include the African-American kids in their school that Amber and her friends avoid like the plague.  These friends are the ones that Tracy believes should not be confined to a once-a-month “Negro Day” program on Corny’s show, but instead has caused a city-wide upheaval declaring in a TV interview, “I’d make every day Negro Day” on TV.

Daniel T. Parker & David Kelly
Tracy’s genuine regard for everyone as equal no matter what the rest of the world says comes largely from parents who have taught her by their everyday life to disregard the meanness and mocking of others.  Tracy’s dad, Wilbur Turnblad (David Kelly), is the good-hearted, always upbeat owner of the Har-De-Har Hut, an outlet for novelties, whose inventions include exploding bubble gum and a still-to-be-perfected, sofa-sized whoopee cushion.  Her mom is the plus-plus-sized Edna, played as in earlier productions of Hairspray in proud drag by Daniel T. Parker, who stands all day at her ironing board as the owner of “Edna’s Occidental Laundry.”  The differently sized couple from the very blue-collar part of town are a Romeo and Juliet who can barely keep their hands off each other.  They bring down the house when they sing and dance “You’re Timeless to Me” in a number that is a hilarious and heart-warming mixture of Vaudeville and 1950’s TV-variety shows (with a touch of Fred and Ginger thrown in for good measure).

Tracy’s being chosen to be a regular on the Corny Collins Show – hosted by a flashy, fair-minded, and fine-voiced knock-off of Dick Clark played by Eddie Lopez – is the worst nightmare of the show’s producer, Amber’s mom, Velma Von Tussle.  That is especially true when suddenly the big-girl, big-hair Tracy becomes an overnight sensation and is leading Amber in the audience voting for “Miss Teenage Hairspray, 1962.”  Velma is even more incensed that Tracy wants to integrate her lily-white show, with Kate Mulligan releasing enough venom in her portrayal of Velma to vie as a wicked witch more vile than any Disney ever conceived.  But when her Velma lets loose in “Velma’s Revenge,” there is no doubt but that this witch can also sing up a storm.
Christian Bufford & Jenna Bainbridge

Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton (Jenna Bainbridge), too has to endure the pointed jabs of other kids because of a severe limp that has led her to be shy and soft-spoken. Her lack of boldness changes when all of a sudden she and an African-American kid, Seeweed J. Stubbs (Christian Bufford) meet and fall gaga for each other.  Both Penny and Seeweed fortunately have several changes each to wow us with voices that zing and dance moves that are split-leg snazzy.  Eventually, together they are just sultry enough to horrify Penny’s highly bigoted, prissy mom, appropriately named Prudy (a outlandishly funny K. T. Vogt whose frozen, shocked, facial poses are a riot and who is equally a comic star in roles as a gym teacher and a prison matron).

Kimberly Monks, Safiya Fredericks & Johnique Mitchell
This outrageously talented cast includes too many to recognize all, but a few more must be mentioned.  Young Tatem Beach is a big-voiced giant of an actor as she commands the stage every time her Little Inez rings out in song and/or dance.  Safiya Fredericks, Johnique Mitchell, and Kimberly Monks – besides playing other school-girl roles – raise the roof as “The Dynamites,” a Motown-like, sassy trio who take an already contagiously delightful song with Tracy, Edna and others – “Welcome to the 60’s” – and send it soaring even higher.  Finally, Brent Hinkley reigns supreme playing a number of quirky roles, including the fabulously funny owner of the Hefty Hideaway clothes store, Mr. Pinky; the evil, hair-challenged school principal who loves to hate and punish Tracy; and the creepy sponsor of Corny’s hit show, Harriman F. Spritzer, who lives and dies on the money he makes selling Ultra Clutch Hair Spray.

Nina Ball has brought from her San Francisco base her scenic design genius to Ashland in creating the Baltimore, two-story brownstone where the Turnbald’s live that converts to a record store and a TV studio in a moment’s turn.  The lighting of Jason Lynch provides the accompanying flash and flair for a stage that extends into a curved ramp near the audience, where powerful moments of both comic and dramatic natures occur where they can be experienced more vividly by all.  The costumes of Susan Tsu are yes, a parade of early ‘60s looks by both teens and adults but becomce much more as sparkly glitz explodes on stage in outfits so gaudy, outlandish, and sky-high over-the-top that they become a show onto themselves.

Production number after number somehow just get better, thanks to the choreography of Jacklyn Miller coupled with the directorial choices of Christopher Liam Moore.  Three sets of moms and daughters – different as they can be on the surface – share three, interlocking spotlights in a big-sounding “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” in a riotous round of rotating dressing tables where Tracy, Penny, and Amber try to convince their protesting moms – all belting “Stop! Don’t! No! Please!” – that they are ready to be independent.  Funny is just not adequate to describe the crazy, stop-and-start action and dance scenes of “I Can Hear the Bells” where Tracy imagines an eventual trip down the aisle with Link.  When she and Link do have a chance to sing expressing their teen hots for each other in “Without Love,” Director and Choreographer collaborate for a rib-tickling love number where an always moving jail cell’s set of bars separates the two but is never stationary long enough to given them or us time to catch our breaths.

Greta Oglesby & David Kelly
Tracy is in that jail cell because she has helped lead protests against the TV station’s policy against kids of color dancing with white kids.  That street protest is inspired by the encouragement of a grand dame who has spent a lifetime fighting battles to be recognized as equal.  Motormouth Maybelle is the big-hearted, fearless mother of Seeweed and is the African-American owner of a local record store and a stage performer in her own right.  She leads forth in a swinging, swirling, and sexy “Big, Blonde and Beautiful,” trumpeting her mighty voice as a full stage joins her in bringing Act One to a standing ovation close. 

Later, Director Moore will make one of the most important decisions of the production by placing Motormouth and all the African American cast at the audience’s edge as she and they sing “I Know Where I Have Been.”  In that one number, Greta Oglesby is able to describe in her deep, smoky voice a past life’s many pains followed by breath-taking vocals that rise in evangelical testimony of hopes for a future of true equality.  While the little white girl Tracy, her parents, and a few of her friends have stepped up to join that fight, this production and this director make it clear that it is the African American community and its heroes like Motormouth Oglesby that deserve the real credit for victories like the final integration in 1962 of this rather silly but altogether important, TV dance show in Baltimore.

And it is that victory as celebrated in the stage-filling, theatre-rocking “You Can’t Stop the Beat” that brings the audience to its feet for good, joining with this matchless and marvelous OSF cast in rejoicing one hard-earned moment among thousands in the road to black-white equality.  But as we clap with them in satisfied triumph, how can we not realize that almost sixty years later in 2019 America, that road still stretches too far out in front of us to an endpoint where there is no longer the ‘other’ in this country?

Rating: 5 E

Hairspray – The Broadway Musical continues through October 27, 2019 in the Agnus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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