Thursday, August 16, 2012
Theater review part deux: Hairspray from Denton Community Theatre
This is one of those rare productions that will have you laughing throughout the evening, while at the same time saliently driving home a sobering reality.
DENTON Racial tension. Chauvinism. Class discrimination. All these things were bubbling under the surface of 1962 Baltimore. Who would have ever thought that this volatile formula would be the driving force behind the highly acclaimed 2002 musical Hairspray? At first glance, it is a bubble-gum musical based on an American Bandstand-style TV show. But in reality, this comedic musical farce is a cutting commentary on our not-too-distant and painful past.
Clay White took on the daunting task of directing this production for Denton Community Theatre. The musical is running at The Campus Theater in Denton — one of the best venues for community theater in the Dallas area. Although the air conditioner was struggling to keep up with the cast, crew, and crowd, Campus Theatre was a delight.
The play begins with our unlikely heroine Tracy Turnblad, played by Ashley Taylor Martin, waking up to sing “Good Morning Baltimore.” The show was off to a wonderful start! Clay White and Alex Rodriguez successfully recreated the signature set piece – an upright bed – giving the audience the illusion of looking down at Tracy as she wakes up and starts singing. This whole scene was executed beautifully. Martin demonstrated from the very beginning that she was meant to play this part. Her vocals were spot on, confident, and clear. She had me smiling from the very start of the production.
Soon we were swept away to the set of The Corny Collins Show, where we met Corny and the Council Kids. Marcus Lopez and Jennifer Peace did an admirable job creating costumes for the entire cast that captured the feel of the early '60s. Tyler Donahue, as Corny Collins, introduced the Council Kids in the American Bandstand-like “The Nicest Kids in Town.” Donahue had the looks and mannerisms of the smarmy TV dance host down pat. The number itself felt a little rushed in places, to the point where Donahue seemed to be out of rhythm, but it came together by the end. This was most likely an opening night hiccup.
It was impressive what White, Rodriguez, and Mike Strecher accomplished with only a few set pieces and paneled walls. With only subtle changes, the audience was never in doubt as to whether we were in a record shop, TV studio, living room, prison, or joke shop. These men were able to do more with less and it made the show that much richer. Another “well done” on the technical front must to go out to the lighting design by Elizabeth Lambert and the execution by Dr. Linda Rubin. Throughout the show, there were several sight gags that relied on a quick light and mood change, timed perfectly to an actor’s statement. Seldom do you see a designer rely so heavily on a rear scrim and use it so well. I have seen lighting done so poorly it was painful, and I have seen lighting done so over-the-top it distracted from the scene. This lighting was perfect — a silent actor performing alongside the rest of the cast making everyone better. A beautiful thing.
The three girls, Tracy, Penny Pingleton (played by Katelyn Branson), and Amber Von Tussle (played by Katie Moyes Williams), worked together beautifully. Earlier I mentioned Martin’s wonderful vocals. Martin also nailed the characterization of the idealistic, naïve and strong-willed Tracy.
Tracy’s awkward best friend Penny was comically portrayed by Branson who successfully pulled off a very difficult feat. Throughout the production, Branson was gawkish, nerdy, and … how to say this … not exceptionally attractive — exactly who Penny was supposed to be. Branson was the very picture of perfect comic timing. Hands down, her portrayal of Penny was my favorite of the evening. She had the audience laughing loud and long at her awkward interjections and mannerisms. So, what was this difficult feat, you ask? In the final scene of the show, Branson pulled off the transformation from the awkward and socially disastrous best friend to a flashy and stunning bomb-shell. I heard exclamations of surprise from the audience when Branson came out a whole new woman. No one expected that transformation. Well done, Branson!
That brings us to Tracy’s arch nemesis, Amber Von Tussle. Williams embodied the spoiled prima donna with every flip of her head and frustrated foot-stomp.
It was truly a joy to watch these three women portray their characters so perfectly throughout the evening.
One scene where the three shone through was in the song “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now.” In this number we were able to eavesdrop on three separate conversations between these girls and their mothers. Maria Harris capably played Amber’s mother, Velma. Throughout the production, she veritably oozed with Machiavellian evil. Nowhere did this stand out as clearly as during her big solo, “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” I am confident that if a puppy happened to cross the stage, Velma would kick it. She was the character we all loved to hate. Julie Brinker was cast as Penny’s mother - but she was also cast as the Gym Teacher and the prison Matron. Three small parts that Brinker handled admirably, making her presence onstage known. One of the best running gags of the night was handled by Brinker in her various manifestations. I won’t go into detail, but trust me, you will enjoy it when you catch it! Finally, we have Tracy’s mother, the indefatigable washer of other people’s laundry, Edna Turnblad, played by John Garcia.
John Garcia took the role of Edna Turnblad beyond any campy, drag stereotype. During the above mentioned song, you could see Edna as a caring mother worried about her daughter. In “Welcome to the '60s,” you saw her come out of her shell and reconnect to her big dreams of the past. During “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” you saw her as a woman finding confidence in who she was despite the judgment of others. Garcia pulled all of that off with flair. But that wasn't Garcia's strength in this role. Garcia was the master of the witty aside, the perfectly timed titter, the comic glance and the unexpected line or mannerism that put the audience over the edge. Comedy and stage presence was Garcia's gift and he evidenced that in abundance on the Campus Theatre stage.
Every performance needs at least one show-stopping moment, and Garcia provided us with one of them. Edna and her faithful husband Wilbur, played by Ken Orman, brought the house down with their performance of “You're Timeless to Me.” Wilbur owns a joke and prank shop, so it was with a delightful sense of irony that the professional jokester played the straight man to Edna's physical comedy and one-liners. This number was simultaneously touching and raucously hilarious. A strange combination you must see to believe. During sections which I suspect were ad-libbed between these two talented performers, the audience was out of control with laughter. A laughter which proved to be contagious as Orman and Garcia lost composure (or at least made us believe they did- - I suspect it was an intentional moment to take the audience even further down this mirthful road) towards the end of the song. Simply wonderful. Garcia and Orman provided one of the best moments onstage that I have seen all year.
The dancing is the crux on which this story depends, and in large, it did not disappoint. Anne Black's choreography was fantastic, and with one exception, the cast executed it very well. The exception occurred early on during the number “I Can Hear the Bells,” performed by Tracy and the cast on set for The Corny Collins Show. This was a clever piece of choreography that was heavily dependent upon the dancers to execute sharp moves in exact rhythm as the orchestra played bell chords. Unfortunately, some of the ensemble struggled, so the visual effect was lost at times. When it was done properly, it looked great! Again, this may be one of those opening night wrinkles that will be ironed out in future performances.
Speaking of dancers, there was one blemish in the ensemble that proved to be a distraction to the audience and drew attention away from the principals on the set. During the energetic and comic number "Without Love," our attention needed to be focused on the blossoming romance between Tracy and Link, played by Gregg Gerardi, and Penny and Seaweed J. Stubbs, played by Christopher Portley. The action moved back and forth from stage left to stage right as these two couples engaged with one another. Center stage the ensemble was performing a great dance routine.
Within the dancers was an ensemble member who was really into this routine: over-the-top, insanely into this routine. At first, I thought it was a gag. But as the number progressed, the dancer's intensity increased. After a while, the audience was laughing at inappropriate moments. I could hear the conversation around me. All eyes were on the ensemble member. The interchange between the two sets of teenage lovers on either side of the stage was lost due to the draw of the dancer's exuberance. During the final number of the show, "You Can't Stop the Beat," this same ensemble memberickey came out again with the ensemble. Thankfully, this time he was upstage and largely obscured by other dancers but his exuberance continued, confirming my suspicion that his performance in the earlier number was not intended to be a joke. At some points I was worried he would strike another dancer. I've dwelt on this not to pick on any one performer but to make the point that many members of the audience were pulled away from the heart of the musical by this overly enthusiastic dancer. Farmer was obviously very talented but in this instance his skill proved to be a distraction rather than an addition to the scene.
This was an amazing cast. Gerardi as Link went from cocky heartthrob to a sincere and caring boyfriend convincingly. Throughout the show you saw his character grow and deepen as he fell out of love with the opportunistic Amber Von Tussle and in to love with the idealistic Tracy Turnblad. Portley as Seaweed was both a talented dancer and a sympathetic character who was making the best of a bad situation. Little Inez, played by Zoey Johnson, was a bright light throughout the evening. When I saw in the program that Johnson is currently attending middle school, I was blown away. She was an extremely talented girl. She had stage presence, an amazing handle on complicated choreography and it was obvious that she loved every moment that she was on stage. I predict great things from Zoey Johnson in the years to come. Stay on the stage young lady!
Yet another show-stopping moment came from Motormouth Maybelle, played by Victoria Belle, and all the kids in her record shop. As I type these lines, I am getting goose bumps just remembering this performance. During “I Know Where I've Been,” we were reminded of the poignant and underlying message of this musical. Belle and company made this audience remember the long arduous road towards civil rights for which so many fought in our not too distant past. Indeed, she made us aware that we are still fighting on that road. Things are not what they once were, but they are not yet what they should and shall be. This was a stirring performance that brought many to their feet. Belle, thank you for transcending your role and reminding us all of where we've been and where we have yet to go. Beautiful and compelling.
Another amazing component of this production came from the musicians involved. These actors weren't performing along with some audio track. No, they had a full 17-piece orchestra accompanying them! Michael Rausch had the challenging responsibility of conducting his ensemble from back stage, unable to make eye contact with the actors on stage. If you have a background in music, you may recognize how difficult this can be! There were moments where the vocalists and orchestra seemed slightly out of sync but they were few and far between. Rausch and his team of talented musicians went above and beyond. A true treat to have such an ensemble accompany this musical.
Having a live orchestra created a difficult situation for Christopher Redden and Danica Bergeron as they designed and balanced the sound. At times lyrics were muffled or lost due to balancing issues. One moment when this was a problem was during “The Big Dollhouse” number. My wife and I both struggled to hear the lyrics.
The finale, as envisioned by Director Clay White and Choreographer Anne Black, was something to behold. I won't spoil the surprise, but you will see some amazing dancing and a number of actors transform as though they came out of a chrysalis. In the case of Garcia’s Edna, the chrysalis/butterfly analogy is exceptionally apt. Kudos to Lyle Huchton, Coy Covington, and John Garcia for creating a spectacular look for Edna Turnblad in those final moments.
Do I recommend DCT’s Hairspray? Without a doubt. This is one of those rare productions that will have you laughing throughout the evening, while at the same time saliently driving home a sobering reality. Thank you cast and crew of DCT. You have given me a night to remember!
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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