Surflight's ‘Hairspray’ Timely and Totally Awesome

Aug 22, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Talk about perfect, if not purposeful, timing. Surflight Theatre scheduled its run of “Hairspray” last winter, long before race once again became a front-burner issue in America thanks to the events of two weekends ago in Charlottesville when torch-bearing Klansmen and neo-Nazis marched through the streets of that normally bucolic college town. But there it was opening last Tuesday night, hours after President Donald Trump’s impromptu press conference that added gasoline to an already inflammatory situation.

“Hairspray,” which opened on Broadway on Aug. 15, 2002, and ended up running for more than six years and winning eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, is based on a 1998 John Waters film. It is the director’s most mainstream movie but still instantly recognizable as a John Waters opus – quirky, funny and based in Baltimore. The musical, with a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman, remains fairly loyal to the film’s script and despite the laughs and cross-dressing has a serious issue at its core – racism.

 It’s 1962 and a short, squat but spirited teen, Tracy Turnblad (Toni Ann Simione), wants nothing more than to be chosen as a regular on the “Corny Collins Show,” based on “The Buddy Deane Show,” a real-life Baltimore version of “American Bandstand” from the late 1950s through the early 1960s. She gets her chance to audition when one of the show’s “Council Members” has to take a leave of absence due to pregnancy (a Waters touch).

Her mother, Edna (Michael McAssey, in a role originated by a Waters favorite, “Divine,” played on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein who won a Tony for his effort, and in the 2007 movie musical by John Travolta) doesn’t want Tracy to try out, fearing she’ll be put down for her weight and working-class background. But her father, Wilbur (Rick Grossman), encourages her. Well, Edna was right: Tracy is ridiculed by the show’s producer, Velma von Tussle (Adrianne Hick), and is refused an audition, along with a young black girl, Little Inez (Olivia Linton).

Luckily, as it turns out, Tracy is sent to a special ed class because of her high-blown hairstyle (thus, in part, the show’s title). The class is almost all black – gee, what a surprise in a border-state U.S. city in 1962. The class, by the way, sets up one of the show’s funniest jokes: What can you do after special ed? Serve in Congress.

Tracy meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Donte Wilder) in her new class, and he teaches her some dance moves. She uses them at a sophomore hop the next day, and the dance’s M.C., Corny Collins himself (Andrew Foote), decides to cast her on his show. Velma and the show’s sponsor, Harriman F. Spritzer (Bobby Davis), want to fire Corny if he insists on Tracy, but as Corny says, you can’t have a Corny Collins Show without Corny Collins and another network would love his ratings.

So Tracy joins the cast and becomes an immediate hit. Soon both she and her mother have jobs promoting Mr. Pinky’s (Davis, in another of his four small roles) plus-size dress shop. But then, back in school, Tracy is knocked out in a dodge ball game by Amber von Tussle (McKenna Christine Poe), Velma’s daughter. Who should come to her rescue but Corny Collins’ regular and teen heartthrob aspiring singer Link Larkin (Tanner Callicutt). That infuriates Amber, who, after all, proudly wears his Council Member ring.

The school nurse is out sick, so Seaweed figures a little bit of fun might be the best cure for Tracy and brings her home to his mother’s, Motormouth Maybelle (Dwan Hayes), for a record party. Tracy has always been a fan of the “Corny Collins Show’s” once-a-month “Negro Day,” which is hosted by Motormouth. Why, Tracy wonders, can’t every day on the “Corny Collins Show” be, in part, Negro Day, with an integrated cast? So the following day the whole gang, including Edna, Wilbur and Tracy’s best friend, the mousy Penny Pingleton (Emily Cobb), head off to the studio to protest. They all end up being arrested and thrown in jail.

Wilbur puts up bail for everybody, using his Har-De-Har Hut joke shop as collateral. But Velma uses her political connections to keep Tracy behind bars.

Link breaks Tracy out of jail, melting the bars using hairspray and a cigarette lighter, and Seaweed rescues Penny from her home, where her racist mother, Prudy (Colleen Burns Dean), has put her under house arrest and tied her to her bed. But will the “Corny Collins Show” ever be integrated, and will Tracy even get her chance to compete for Miss Teenage Hairspray against her archrival, Amber? After all, if they all show up at the TV station, they’re sure to face jail again.

Let’s put it this way – the show’s final number is called “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

Surflight’s production of “Hairspray” isn’t just timely. It is, in a word, extraordinary.

Simione, a recent Pinelands Regional High School graduate, captures the plucky spirit of Tracy perfectly, and her singing is clear and ringing, so much so that the audience was totally immersed in the show within minutes.

McAssey makes one of the ugliest women you’re ever likely to see yet projects such tenderness that you laugh with him, not at him. When he and Grossman team up for a duet, “You’re Timeless to Me,” you’d swear they had been married for decades, earning my nomination for “Surflight’s Couple of the Year.” Meanwhile, you can be excused for thinking Hick and Poe are a real mother and daughter duo, so alike did they seem.

Indeed, the casting was spot-on throughout. Foote played his best role of his 2017 Surflight season as Corny Collins; Cobb transformed from dowdy to stunning, displaying more legs than a Perdue Chicken supermarket display. Dean, in one of her roles, reminded you of every female gym teacher you ever had; Linton was as cute as a button. Dwan Hayes can belt with the best of them; Callicutt, a regular Richie Cunningham, puts the nice in “The Nicest Kids in Town,” the tag affixed to the Corny Collins regulars.

The only problem with Surflight’s show last Wednesday evening was with sound. I’m not certain if Cobb’s microphone was deliberately muted until her character went from caterpillar to butterfly, but if that was purposeful, the effect didn’t work – she was practically inaudible for most of the evening. And a song by “The Dynamites,” a Motown chorus consisting of Nina Gabriella Gross, Miriam Navarette and Sydni Session, was ruined, with one lady’s mic not working at all and a second’s coming on halfway through her solo moment, leaving only the third’s lyrics intelligible.

Hopefully that problem was straightened out later in the run because Surflight’s “Hairspray” came mighty close to being perfect, so much so I wondered if the audience would ever stop clapping.

Timing made the show poignant, the cast made it fun, and director/choreographer Paula Hammons Sloan made it a glittering diamond in a tiara of work I have long admired.

“Hairspray” will run through Aug. 27, its run probably cut short because much of the mostly young cast has to return to college. Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven. If you want to see this delightful show, don’t wait until the last moment to order tickets because it has been selling well or even out.

And trust me, you won’t want to miss it.

— Rick Mellerup

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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