Thursday, July 5, 2012

Theater Review: Harispray -- Ivoryton

Michael Barra and Jill Sullivan. Photo courtesy of The Ivoryton Playhouse
1962 Baltimore Comes to Life at Ivoryton
By Lauren Yarger
Jill Sullivan turns on the charm as hair-teasing, new-dance-craze-loving, lovesick Tracy Turnblad in Ivoryton Playhouse's production of Hairspray, running through July 29.

It's 1962 Baltimore, where racial tension and segregation provide a backdrop for teen angst and lots of catchy tunes by Marc Shaiman (lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman) performed to stage-defying choreography by JR Bruno who manages to get some 15 ensemble members bopping around  at times without crashing into each other on the small stage. Vivianna Lamb designs era-evoking costumes that also help set the stage with the help of some fun wigs designed by Joel Silvestro.

Tracy gets the chance of a lifetime -- to dance on the popular Corny Collins (Sam Schrader) TV show (think American Bandstand) -- and to meet her heartthrob, dancer Link Larkin (Justin Gerard). Amber Von Tussle (Bethany Fitzgerald), whose mother, Velma (Tara Michelle Gesling), just happens to be the show's producer, isn't happy about the sudden competition Tracy represents, both for Amber's dance partner, Link, or for the title Miss Hairspray being touted by the show's sponsor, Mr. Spritzer (R. Bruce Connelly, who plays a few different roles).

Tracy's mom, Edna (Michael Barra), isn't thrilled either, afraid that her daughter will be mocked because of her larger size. Tracy is encouraged, however, by her dad, Wilbur (a very engaging Neal Mayer), her best friend, Penny Pingleton (Abby Hart) and her new friend from detention/special ed and dance inspiration, Seaweed J. Stubbs (a delightfully smooth-voiced Gregory Lawrence Gardner). When Tracy decides that her black friends should be allowed to dance with her and the white dancers on the TV show, race tension, jail time and interracial romance all ensue.

Director Jacqueline Hubbard does a nice job casting and staging this production (assisted by Bruno), though it lacks a cohesiveness. Individual performers, especially Sullivan with her really good singing voice, are impressive, but we don't feel group energy.

Cully Long creates a set that looks like it might have decorated a high school gym for prom and incorporates video screen for enhancement of the musical numbers and a "working" TV that brings the Corny Collins show into the Turnblads' living room. John Sebastian DeNicola ably music directs the familiar tunes including "Good Morning, Baltimore," "I Can Hear the Bells," and "You Can't Stop the Beat" (the show won eight Tony awards including best musical and score) and conducts the eight-member band.

Standing out among the really talented ensemble are "The Dynamites," (Kimberly Morgan, Shereen Macklin and Alana Cauthen) and Karen Anderson as Motormouth Maybelle. Her rendition of "I Know Where I've Been" with a video/still shot montage of images from the Civil Rights movement is very moving. In fact, the use of  '60's era images throughout the show is exceptional. Keep an eye on them, as its easy to get caught up in the fun taking place on the stage and miss them.

While the show might have snagged a bunch of Tonys, there are some puzzles about that. First, the book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan is pretty shallow, relying on stereotype and easy laughs while not allowing for a whole lot of character development in a story that really begs some when difficult issues such as obesity, racial segregation and parental abuse are in play.

Harvey Fierstein won the Tony for his performance as Edna, and the role is always played by a man. Why? I don't know. There's no reason a woman couldn't play the fun role -- and might actually bring more depth to it. Lines like, "No, I'm not her father," when Edna answers the phone might be funnier if someone seriously couldn't mistake the deep male voice answering for Tracy's dad. Here, Barra doesn't attempt to be a female Edna. He just performs the role, which is what it is -- an overweight person who does other people's laundry, regretting the loss of the dream of one day designing a line of clothing. Edna is protective of her daughter and in love with her husband, who loves her unconditionally. (Hear anything in that description that says, "must be played by a man?")

There were some technical issues, but I saw a preview, so let's hope the kinks were worked out by the opening. (One note to Link --  heart throbs don't wear feminine looking hair clips -- to hold the microphone cord).

Performance times are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Evening performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets are $40 for adults, $35 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children and are available by calling 860-767-7318 or by visiting (Group rates are available by calling the box office for information.) The Playhouse is located at 103 Main  Street in Ivoryton.

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