It’s taken nearly ten years for the Broadway smash musical Hairspray to get its first L.A.-area CLO production, but it’s been well worth the wait, as Musical Theatre West’s sensational Opening Night performance at the Carpenter Center made abundantly clear.

Based on John Waters’ 1988 cult film of the same name, the multiple Tony award-winning musical tells the tale of 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 (“It’s the New Frontier!”), 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 Collins 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.

Director extraordinaire Larry Raben helms Hairspray this time around, keeping the energy high and performances bright and sparkling. Premier choreographer Lee Martino stages Hairspray’s multiple dance sequences from the ground up, making its high-energy production numbers (“The Nicest Kids In Town,” “Welcome To The Sixties,” “You Can’t Stop The Beat”) fresh new creations, particularly for those who’ve only seen Jerry Mitchell’s Tony-nominated original dance moves.

As for the cast, when you’re MTW and have ten Equity contracts to offer and nearly five hundred of our top talents vying for the show’s twenty-eight spots, you can rest assured that each and every performer on the Carpenter Center stage will be a Broadway-caliber triple threat.

The casting of Jim J. Bullock as Edna turns out to be a stroke of genius, not simply because the comedic actor’s years on TV’s Too Close For Comfort have made him a national favorite, but because his long association with Hairspray (Bullock played both Male Authority Figure and Wilber Turnblad on Broadway) makes him the logical choice to graduate to the role of Edna, one which he plays to perfection. Even Bullock fans will marvel at the way Jim J. disappears into Edna’s “Hefty-Hideaway” skin in a performance that pays tribute to the Harvey Fierstein original yet remains very much his own. Bullock’s Edna blends wise cracks and maternal warmth, has great chemistry with Barry Pearl’s Wilber, and looks pretty darned gorgeous when all dolled up.

Victoria Morgan, who scored raves for her Bay Area Tracy earlier this year, makes her Southern California debut in an all-around captivating performance that blends teenage spunk and cuteness in equal measure, whether extolling the virtues of her hometown in Hairspray’s bang-up opener “Good Morning Baltimore” or swooning over Link in “I Can Hear The Bells” or insisting to Mama Edna that she’s a “Big Girl Now.”

Supporting Mother and Daughter is a couldn’t-be-better cast, starting off with Pearl’s goofy, affectionate Wilber, whose “Timeless” duet with Bullock not only stops the show, but returns for an adlib-packed encore guaranteed to make return visits a treat for Hairspray lovers. Gwen Stewart, who dazzled audiences with her unforgettable “Seasons Of Love” in the original Broadway production and MTW’s L.A. premiere of Rent, may well be the best Motormouth Maybelle ever, her gut-wrenching rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” leaving all others in the dust. David Engel and Tracy Lore reprise their recent Moonlight Amphitheatre roles as Corny Collins and Velma Von Tussle to stellar effect, Engel’s Corny singing and dancing up a storm, while Lore’s Velma chews up scenery and victims in equal measure and stops the show with a hilariously over-the-top “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” JP Sarro gets plenty of laughs as Male Authority Figure (Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway owner Mr. Pinky, high school principal Patterson, and Mr. Harriman F. Spritzer, the President of Ultra Clutch Hairspray). As for MTW’s Female Authority Figure (Prison Matron, Gym Teacher, and Penny’s prudish mom Prudy Pingleton), Karla J. Franko’s is the very first I’ve seen to match Jackie Hoffman’s Original Broadway Cast turn in comedic brilliance.

The younger set is represented by the sensational quintet of Derek Klena as teen heartthrob Link Larkin, Erin Watkins as Tracy’s best chum Penny Pingleton, Todrick C. Hall as sexy detention regular Seaweed J. Stubbs, Lauren Smolka as Tracy nemesis Amber Von Tussle, and Chyka Jackson as petite ball of fire Little Inez. Broadway-bound Klena is every 1962 teen’s ideal of pompadoured perfection, selling “It Takes Two” like nobody’s business. L.A. newcomer Watkin’s take on Penny is deliciously understated and adorably quirky. Hall’s Seaweed once again reveals this oh-so talented American Idol finalist and Broadway vet as “one to watch.” Smolka’s Amber is even more delectably venomous than she was this past summer at the Moonlight—and that’s saying something. Jackson’s infectious performance as Little Inez is yet another Hairspray winner.

Completing the cast are fifteen of the very best triple-threats you’ll be seeing on this or any stage, and that includes those on the Great White Way: Anthony Chatmon II, Chester Lockhart (IQ), dance captain Jeremy Lucas (Sketch), Kamilah Marshall (Dynamite), Emily Mitchell (Dynamite), Tiana Okoye (Dynamite), Allison Paraiso (Brenda), Neil Starkenberg (Fender), Clay Stefanki (Brad), Veronica Stevens (Tammy), Marcus Terell, Lauren Tillery, Nikki Tomlinson (Lou Ann), Carly Wielstein (Shelley) and Louis A. Williams.

Musical director Dennis Castellano conducts the sensational MTW orchestra, with Julie Ferrin’s sound design providing an expert mix of vocals and instrumentals. An uncredited William Ivey Long’s original Broadway costume designs have been coordinated for this production by Yolanda Rowell, and topped off by hair-whiz Byron J. Batista’s expert big-hair-and-bigger-wig design. Broadway scenic designer David Rockwell’s uncredited sets are lit by Jean-Yves Tessier with with vibrant pizzazz.

Kevin Clowes is technical director, Stanley D. Cohen stage manager, and Mary Ritenhour assistant stage manager. Musical Theatre West is headed by Paul Garman, Executive Director/Produder and Artistic Director Steven Glaudini.

Though Southern Californians can expect to see Hairsprays galore in the coming months as rights are released to community theaters and other non-Equity houses, none is likely to match MTW’s in triple-threat talent, choreography, musical accompaniment, and design—all the more reason not to miss this musical theater event. You may have seen Hairspray before (as I have) and be planning to see more Hairsprays in the future (as I am), but Hairspray done à la Musical Theatre West should still be at the top of your must-see list. I loved every second of MTW’s Hairspray, and if you’re anywhere near the musical theater lover that I am, so I guarantee will you.

Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
October 29, 2011
Photos: Ken Jacques

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