Monday, April 29, 2013

Theater Review: Hairspray -- CT Repertory

Tina Fabrique (center) leads the cast. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
 Hello, Baltimore! Great Casting, Great Choreography Push CT Rep’s Hairspray
By Lauren Yarger
Another production of Hairspray. It seems every theater from high school to professional has presented the Marc Shaiman/ Scott Wittman musical more than once over the years, so do we really need to see another production so soon?

If the show is the one closing out the 2013 season at CT Repertory up at UConn, the answer is a resounding yes!

Director Paul Mullins has teased together a terrific cast (the ensemble at 45+ is huge) starring comedian Kevin Meaney as Edna Turnblad, Tina Fabrique (Ella) as Motormouth Mabel and Lena Mary Amato as Tracy, reprising this role for the fifth time (she won the 2012 Syracuse Area Live Theatre Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Tracy at The Merry-Go-Round Playhouse.) Broadway-quality choreography by Gerry McIntyre is executed with enthusiasm and precision by the cast to add to the fun (as do costumes by Maureen Freedman).

And fun it is. The bubbly Tracy is head over heels in love with dashing Link Larkin (Will Haden), the featured dancer on Baltimore’s American Bandstand-like TV show hosted by Corny Collins (a terrific James Jelkin). While teasing her hair to new heights (Bailey Rosenberg provides the laugh-inspiring hair and makeup design for the show), she hopes that one day she and Link might end up together (“I Can Hear the Bells”). Those hopes are dashed like a perm meeting water, however, when Amber Von Tussie (Andrianna Prast), Link’s dance partner and daughter of the show’s producer, Velma (Sarah Wintermeyer), starts flashing his ring. 

Undaunted, Tracy cuts school with best friend Penny Pingleton (Kate Zulauf) to audition for the show. Tracy’s cool dance moves, honed during some improv movement sessions with black students like Seaweed J. Stubbs (Colby Lewis) who are doing some different, very hip moves during their frequent detentions after school, earn her a place on the show despite her plump figure. She gets extra hold with sprays of loving support along the way from mother Edna (Meaney) and father Wilbur (Scott Ripley).

Racial relations aren’t all that they should be in 1960s Baltimore, however, and controversy arises when Tracy wants her black friends to be able to dance on the show with her. Currently, they are seen only on “Negro Day” hosted once a month by Stubbs’ mother, Motormouth Mable (Fabrique). Love (Penny and Seaweed discover the heart doesn’t care about race), taking a stand for what’s right and arrests all play out against a contest for the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray.

Meaney does a great job portraying the conflicted mother who is protective of her child while wanting to help her achieve her dreams. In fact, Meaney is the only actor playing the role I have seen who doesn’t appear just to be a guy in drag (why the role always is played by a man instead of a talented actress of size is a mystery). He simply becomes Edna. Kudos! And he’s funny. During a touching ballad with Wilbur ("Timeless to Me"), Meaney suddenly improvised some dialogue the night I attended. Watching talented Ripley trying to keep up without losing it was a treat.

Fabrique is lovely to hear and Amato simply is the quintessential big girl with the big hair and big dreams, bringing a terrific singing voice and contagious excitement to the stage. Also giving stellar performances are Zulauf, Lewis and Haden. Standing out in three minor roles is Hannah Kaplan as Penny’s mother, Prudy and as the school gym teacher and the prison matron. She is a hoot and develops three distinct characters.

You Can’t Stop the Beat. Get over to the Harriet S. Jorgenson Theater and see this funny and delightfully fresh “do.” It runs through May 5. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets $6-$36 (860) 486-2113; www.crt.uconn.edu.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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