It’s been five years since Hairspray has been anywhere near L.A., so the arrival of the long-running National Tour at Costa Mesa’s Orange County Performing Arts Center is exciting news indeed.  This fabulous touring production features lead and supporting actors who create memorable characters and a team of young triple-threats who sing and dance Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s tuneful songs to deserved audience cheers.

The 2003 multiple Tony award-winning Hairspray is based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name and tells the tale of petite but plus-sized teenager Tracy Turnblad’s dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a 1962 Baltimore version of American Bandstand. Despite those extra pounds and a then shockingly progressive attitude towards integration, Tracy does indeed that dream come true.  Whether she cans succeed in making “Negro Day” more than a once-a-month Corny Colins Show event or be able to win the heart of local teen heartthrob Link Larkin—well, for that, you’ll have to see the show, well worth a drive down to the OC during its all-too-brief one-week run.

Tracy is the daughter of a 6’4” woman of ample proportions and a heart of mush named Edna Turnblad, a role originated on film by John Waters muse Divine (an actor of the biologically male persuasion) and on Broadway by the one-and-only Harvey Fierstein. Here the role goes to a Shakespearean actor named Greg London, and if his name doesn’t ring the same bells that Divine’s and Harvey’s do, his absolutely splendid performance benefits greatly from his skills as a versatile, highly trained thespian (who just happens to also be a terrific song and dance man in drag). London’s endearing, larger-than-life performance plays loving tribute to Divine, all the while making the part his own.  London plays the part straight (forgive the pun), and by never trying for laughs, gets them in abundance.

Matt Lenz’s direction (from Jack O’Brien’s Tony-winning original direction) insures that, like London, the tour’s outstanding non-Equity cast give performances rivaling their better-known Broadway counterparts.

As Tracy, the dynamic Danielle Arci gives a performance that holds its own against any Broadway Tracy.  She’s cuddly, she’s vivacious, she’s full of vim and vigor, and she sings and dances with the best of them. No wonder Link sees her inner beauty.

Supporting roles are all-around sensational. Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton is played to dorky perfection by the adorable Amber Rees.  Ryan Rubek is as talented a triple-threat as he is dreamy as Link Larkin. Debra Thais Evans acts and sings the living daylights out of Motormouth Maybelle, belting the self-descriptive “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and the soulful eleventh hour “I Know Where I’ve Been” with some rich, powerful pipes. 20-year-old newcomer Richard Crandle is Maybelle’s son (and Penny’s interracial love) Seaweed J. Stubbs, and it’s hard to imagine the role sung or danced better or with more charm.   Erin Sullivan nails Amber Von Tussle’s particular brand of stuck-upedness and Colleen Kazemek is a hoot as Velma Von Tussle in all her scheming glory, scoring with Velma’s signature number, “(The Legend Of) Miss Baltimore Crabs.” Mark A. Harmon is a goofy delight as Enda’s husband Wilber, and his duet (and soft-shoe) with Edna of “(You’re) Timeless To Me” is an Act Two highlight. Aussie Benjamin J. McHugh scores as the cocky host of the eponymous Corny Collins Show, spot-on American accent and all. Marsena Eunice Bowers is a petite bundle of talent and bounce as Seaweed’s kid sister Little Inez. As Female Authority Figure, the hilarious Jorie Janeway does some great mugging in a trio of roles: Prison Matron, Gym Teacher, and Penny’s prudish mom Prudy Pingleton. Equally outrageous is Charles R. Sarkioglu, III as Male Authority Figure, i.e. Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway owner Mr. Pinky, high school principal Patterson, and Mr. Harriman F. Spritzer, the President of Ultra Clutch Hairspray.

Jerry Mitchell’s Tony-nominated choreography has been recreated for the tour by Danny James Austin, one crowd-pleasing high-energy production number after another, flawlessly performed by the production’s oh-so-talented young ensemble.  Ken Arpino (Sketch), Daniel Bentley (Gilbert), Teanna Berry (Peaches), Adam Cassel (I.Q.), Andrea Collier (Brenda), Willie Dee (Thad), Bianca Denis (Cindy Watkins), Shelese Franklin (Pearl), Mike Kelton (Brad), Kyle Kleiboeker (Fender), Shannon Mullen (Tammy), Angie Perez (Shelley), Keleen Snowgren (Lou Ann), and Evan Walker (Duane) never give less than 100% of their singing, dancing, and acting best.  Swings Theo Lencicki and Shavanna Calder, and swing/dance captain Lindsey Clayton did not appear in the performance reviewed here, but are poised to assume any of the ensemble roles at a moment’s notice.

Musical director/conductor/keyboardist Ross Scott Rawlings and the Hairspray orchestra sound so great, you’d hardly guess there are only six musicians in the pit.

With the exception of the greatly simplified bus-and-truck versions of David Rockwell’s original Broadway sets, design elements (from or based on the Broadway originals) are first class, from Paul Miller’s pizzazzy lighting (based on Kenneth Posner’s Broadway design) to Shannon Slaton’s sound design to Paul Huntley’s wigs and hair design.  Best of all are William Ivey Long’s colorful circa-1962 costumes.

After five long years, it’s great to welcome Hairspray back to L.A.-adjacent Costa Mesa.  Fans of the show would do well to head down south a ways to re-experience the magic of “Broadway’s Big Fat Musical Comedy Hit” before Sunday’s closing performances. I’m certainly glad I did!

Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
April 6, 2010

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