Following over six years (and a grand total of 2642 performances) on Broadway and several Equity and non-Equity National Tours, the smash hit musical Hairspray has at last been made available to theaters across the country, and San Diego Repertory Theatre has scored big in getting the rights to its Southern California Regional Theater Premiere, making for a delightful, often outstanding production directed with assurance and flair by Sam Woodhouse and featuring actors who put their own stamp on John Waters’ memorable characters and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s tuneful songs.

The 2003 multiple Tony award-winning Hairspray is, as you may recall, 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 make that dream come true, leaving only two more tasks for her to accomplish:  a) making “Negro Day” more than a once-a-month Corny Colins Show event and b) winning the heart of local teen heartthrob Link Larkin. Since Hairspray is the quintessential happy ending musical, there’s little doubt about our pleasingly plump heroine’s success in both endeavors.

Those familiar with either Waters’ movie or its Broadway/movie musical adaptation know that Tracy is the daughter of a 6’2” 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 part goes to Peter Van Norden, one of L.A. and San Diego’s finest character actors, who makes the role entirely his own, a man-sized lady who is indeed a lady, whether dressed in a drab house dress or begowned to the nines.  Van Norden’s is rich, wonderful work by a classically trained actor with a gift for musical theater.



As Tracy, Cal State Fullerton sophomore Bethany Slomka gives a performance every bit as delightful, cuddly, and winning as the better known Tracys who have preceded her, whether extolling the virtues of her hometown in Hairspray’s bang-up opening number “Good Morning Baltimore” or swooning over Link in “I Can Hear The Bells.” 

Slomka and Van Norden are surrounded by a cast of mostly Equity principals delivering all-around marvelous performances.  Steve Gunderson is a great, goofy, still-madly-in-love Wilber Turnbad, Megan Martin has lots of fun with Amber Von Tussle’s mean girl self-centeredness, and Stacey Hardke is a geekly delight with a wow of a voice as Tracy’s best friend Penny.  Terrific triple-threat Efren Ramirez’s Link is sweeter and less swaggery than the part is often played, an excellent Tony Melson is an equally teen-heartthrobby Seaweed J. Stubbs, and a well-cast Victor Hernandez has TV host Corny Collins’ slickness down pat.  As Motormouth Maybelle and her pint-sized daughter Little Inez, Pam Trotter and Victoria Matthews have great stage presence and pipes to reach the back row and beyond, Trotter’s powerful “I Know Where I’ve Been” encapsulating the Civil Rights movement in four breathtaking minutes.  Kat Fitzpatrick and Tim Irving essay numerous comedic cameo roles to hilarious effect.  Finally, there is Leigh Scarritt as a surgically enhanced (and then some) Velma Von Tussle, chewing the scenery with contagious glee, belting out “(The Legend Of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” with one hell of a set of pipes, and making the role uniquely, unforgettably her own.


San Diego Rep is presenting Hairspray in partnership with the San Diego School Of Creative And Performing Arts, which means that the teenage regulars on the Corny Collins show are being played by actual teenagers, and a multitalented bunch at that: Dayna-Alice Austin (Tammy), Denise Barroga (Shelley), Shawn Bray (Gilbert), Kevin Burroughs (Duane), Andre Caston (Thad), Derrick Gaffney (Brad), Dylan Hoffinger (IQ), Alize Irby (Lorraine), Erika Malachowski (Brenda), Catie Marron (Lou Ann), Carson McCalley (Sketch), Olaniya S. Oasehinde (Stooie), Benjamin Silbert (Fender), and Chynna Young (Cindy Watkins). SDSCPA students Déjà Fields, Suzanne Rubio, and Tayler Walker are The Dynamites, with Fields and Walker doubling as Record Shop Girls.  Matthew Dray portrays various Officers Of The Law and Jordan Scowcroft plays a Nurse and Council Mother.

For this reviewer at least, however, this teens-as-teens concept works better in theory than in practice. This particular Hairspray seems at times to be two productions at once, a professional staging with 20something actors in teen roles crossed with a performing arts high school production. Ironically, these teen performers actually come across too young to fit in as well as I would have liked with the rest of the cast—an observation that is intended as no reflection whatsoever on their talents.

On the other hand, the equally youthful student orchestra under the conductorship of crackerjack musical director Tamara Paige had me so fooled into thinking that they were a band of adult professionals that it came as a delightful shock when a bunch of teens came out the stage door post performance, instrument cases in hand.

My guess is that many future regional productions will be using the National Tour sets and costumes on a proscenium stage with the orchestra down in the pit, recreating the look and feel of the original. One of the great pleasures of San Diego Rep’s Hairspray is that it has been designed from the ground up on a thrust stage, one which hides the bigger-than-Broadway orchestra behind an upstage scrim. The result is a production which puts Tracy, Edna, Link, and the rest of the cast within spitting distance of the front row, making this Hairspray up-close-and-personal like none before.

Javier Velasco’s choreography is a lively, bouncy recreation of the moves of an era, albeit somewhat less high-energy than Jerry Mitchell’s Broadway/National Tour original. Trevor Norton’s scenic design makes excellent use of the Lyceum Theatre’s thrust stage, and I particularly liked the appropriately ‘60s TV screen-shaped cutouts which frame the set. Norton’s lighting is equally splendid as are Mary Larson and Kate Stallons’ early-‘60s costumes and Tom Jones’ sound design.  Wigs by Granada Wigs are deliciously exaggerated big-&-tall beehives and flips. Richard Trujillo is assistant director, Ellen Noll-Warkentien is assistant to the choreographer, Mark Stevens is stage manager, and Meghan Bourdeau is assistant stage manager.

San Diegans are indeed lucky to get to see Hairspray so soon after the very last National Tour gave its closing performance in April. Equally fortunate will be those Angelinos who make the trek down south for this SoCal Regional Premiere.  It’s either that or wait another year or more for a closer-to-L.A. Premiere—and for this reviewer, the question was a no brainer.

–Steven Stanley
July 25, 2010

San Diego Repertory Theatre, The Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego.
                                                                                 Photos: Daren Scott and J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Photography


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