The smash hit Broadway musical Hairspray has arrived at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center in an intimate staging so all-around terrific, it’s hard to know where to start singing its praises.


Based on John Waters’ 1988 cult film of the same name, Hairspray 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, 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.

I’ve now seen a grand total of nine Hairsprays (on Broadway, on tour, and in big stage regional productions), but never before have I experienced it so up-close and personal, and with a cast that easily rivals the best of any I’ve seen, this is one Hairspray musical theater lovers won’t want to miss.

Though at 220 seats the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center is more than twice as large as those 99-seat theaters we usually dub “intimate,” it’s less than one-tenth the size of the Pantages (where the National Tour first played back in 2004), thereby bringing Edna and Tracy and all the other iconic John Waters creations almost within touching distance.

Intimacy is hardly the only reason to make the drive up to Simi Valley, though. Fred Helsel and Becky Castells have directed and Castells choreographed with supreme imagination and a savvy awareness of just how to make the best use of a stage only a fraction the dimensions of those which have preceded it.

Tracy’s “Good Morning Baltimore” may not be the big, dancy number we’ve seen before, but it is no less effective in this more intimate introduction of the Baltimoreans about whom our curvaceous young heroine sings. A reduced stage may not give Castells the space Jerry Mitchell had to work with on Broadway, but the choreographer uses her small stage and troupe of promising young triple-threats to ingenious perfection in production number after production number. As for imagination, having Tracy’s best friend Penny a bewildered visitor to Tracy’s dream in “I Can Hear The Bells” is as inspired a reworking of a song as I can recall seeing.

Anyone familiar with Waters’ movie or its Broadway/movie musical adaptation knows that Tracy Turnblad is the daughter of a 6’2” woman of ample proportions and a heart of mush named Edna, 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 veteran actor Bart Sumner, whose rich performance owes a debt to Fierstein and Divine and other Ednas before him (with a dash of Ethel Merman thrown in for good measure), yet remains very much his own creation. Sumner takes Edna from soprano to basso profundo in a hilarious instant, has a heart as deep as the sea and as soft as mush, and gets made over into one stunning hunk of woman.

Perky Jamie Whittington Studer is likewise one of the bubbliest, bounciest, most adorable Tracys ever (and certainly the blondest and biggest haired)—with vocal and dance chops to match.

As for this Hairspray’s many-membered supporting cast, there’s nary a weak link, beginning with the fabulous Sandra Moreau’s snootily glamorous, scene-stealing Velma Von Tussel (Corny Collins Show producer and one-time Miss Baltimore Crabs). Melissa Martinez is everything an Amber Von Tussel should be, slender, stuck-up, and delectably mean. Jamie Baer is a dorky delight as Penny opposite the charismatic Keenon Hooks’ terrific Seaweed J. Stubbs. Talented up-and-comer Andrew Allen gives Link Larkin a sexy swagger along with a twinkle in the eyes, Jonathan Bluth makes the very most of cocky Corny Collins’ several appearances, and Amanda Meade-Tatum is one cute-and-scrappy Little Inez. Brittney S. Wheeler brings dignity, warmth, and plenty of sass to “Negro Day” host Motormouth Maybelle, and sings the inspirational “I Know Where I’ve Been” in a rich, powerful mezzo. Larry Shilkoff and Veronica Scheyving bring plenty of pizzazz to their various cameo roles, including Shilkoff’s amusingly flamboyant Mr. Pinky and Scheyving’s hilariously butch prison matron. MarLee Candell offers amusing support as Penny’s prudish mom Prudy, and LeVanna Atkinson-Williams, Brittany Gael Vaughn, and Takiyah Rue bring Dreamgirls glamour and power pipes to girl group The Dynamites. Finally, John Dantona simply couldn’t be better as goofy Wilber Turnblad, love of Edna’s life, their soft-shoe duet of “You’re Timeless To Me” proving every bit the show-stopper it’s intended to be.

Supporting these principal players with vitality and verve are a talented team of mostly very young singer-dancers—Stephen Anglin, Elizabeth Cross, dance captain Tori Cusack, Sara Fanella, Isaiah Gonzalez, Jennifer Graham, Kurt Kemper, Brenden MacDonald, Brandin Mitchell, Lorne Stevenson, Natalie Titcomb, and Joey Van Noppen.

Vocal harmonies are great under Gary Poirot’s expert musical direction, Poirot conducting the production’s accomplished eleven-piece live orchestra: Poirot on keyboards, Gabe Gonzales on guitar, Lucas Miller on drums, Jodie Morse on percussion, Cavit Celayir-Monezis on trombone, Heather Simpson, Paul David Patterson, and Braxton Torres on reeds, Chelsea Simpson on cello, Ray Dean Mize on violin, and Kevin Hart on bass.

‘60s costumes by Randon Pool and wigs by Poirot are vibrant treats each and every one, with a special tip of the hat to Tracy’s trendy outfits and Edna’s plus-size creations. Sean Harrington’s rainbow-colored set design is ingeniously simple, allowing maximum use of the SVCAC stage, expertly lit by Jackson Miller. Lacey Stewart is technical coordinator and sound engineer, Amanda Lastort assistant choreographer, and Brenda Goldstein stage manager.

Whether you’re a Hairspray newbie or a veteran Hairspray-goer like this reviewer, Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center has staged a production of the Broadway hit guaranteed to entertain even as it stealthily inserts its message of equality for all. And that deserves (no offense intended) a BIG FAT WOW!

Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Avenue, Simi Valley.

–Steven Stanley
January 7, 2012
Photos: JGeary Photo

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