When I tell you that 3-D Theatricals’ big-stage, big-budget production of “Broadway’s Big Fat Musical Comedy Hit” is the best Hairspray I’ve seen since catching both the original Broadway production and its First National Tour in 2004, trust me that having seen now nine different productions since then (all in the space of two and a half years), this is the Hairspray not to be missed.
Featuring a tuneful score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, Hairspray The Musical (book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan) 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 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. Oh, and lest I forget, Tracy just happens to be the daughter of a man-sized 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.
What separates 3-D’s Hairspray from its predecessors is a near perfect confluence of creative factors—direction, performances, choreography, musical direction, and design—all of which come together to create a Hairspray made in musical theater heaven.
Director T.J. Dawson has clearly done his Hairspray homework, as well as put a lot of thought and preparation into creating a Hairspray that ends up no carbon copy of those which have come before, a phenomenon particularly evident in Dawson’s attention to character and detail. Edna, Tracy, and their fellow Baltimorese are not only clearly-delineated, three-dimensional creations, the same holds true for the ensemble, no mere stage dressing but each with his or her own back story to tell.
Dawson’s hand-picked cast of principal players is a mix of a half-dozen superb Hairspray vets along with some terrific newcomers to the show.
Paul C. Vogt, Danielle Arci, Barry Pearl, Gwen Stewart, Todrick Hall, and Jeff Stanfield have all starred in previous Hairsprays—Vogt on Broadway and in Las Vegas; Arci in the final National Tour which I caught in Costa Mesa in 2010; Pearl, Stewart, and Hall at Musical Theatre West last year; and Stanfield (featured on this past year’s Tony Awards broadcast) shipboard for Royal Caribbean International. Almost everyone else in the cast is a Hairspray virgin.
The result is a blend of performers who bring the wisdom and depth of experience and others who approach the project with fresh new eyes, and to quote from Irving Berlin, “Who could ask for anything more?”
Vogt gives us everything we want from an Edna—warmth, toughness, vulnerability, maternal love, and a palpable adoration for her man. Arci’s Tracy (a 2010-11 Scenie-winner) is cute, bubbly, feisty, cuddly, and smart, and features some inspired “business” that, like Vogt’s, is clearly the result of having played the part over the course of hundreds of performances. Pearl’s wonderfully wacky Wilber proves the perfect marriage partner and comic foil for Vogt’s Edna, and the extended (and mostly adlibbed) riff that follows their “Timeless” duet is so inspired by the gods of improvised comedy that you might not want to see it end. Stewart won a Best Featured Actress Scenie for her Motormouth Maybelle at MTW, and as her even more fabulous performance this year proves, there’s no one more able to dazzle us in the role. Hall’s sassy, sexy Seaweed and Stanfield’s ever-so dreamy Link are the best I’ve seen in both these roles since my first exposure to Hairspray eight years ago.
Then there are the newcomers, who bring such freshness to their roles that even a Hairspray vet like this reviewer found himself discovering new aspects to the iconic John Waters characters they bring to life.
No matter what role Jill Van Velzer plays, the four-time individual Scenie winner ends up playing it to perfection, and here she makes Velma Von Tussle far richer and deeper than merely the proverbial stage mother from hell. The same can be said for Laura L. Thomas as Amber, a role the L.A. newcomer gives considerably more depth than the two-dimensional vixen she can easily become. Alyssa M. Simmons’ Penny is a nonstop, geeky, adorable delight, and following Simmons’ roles in Little Women and Meet Me In St. Louis proves her as versatile as they come. J. Patrick Lundquist gives Corny Collins the combination of charisma and likability that made Dick Clark a legend for so many decades. Shaylin Becton’s Little Inez is not only a big-voiced scene-stealer; it’s refreshing to see the role played by an honest-to-goodness child (with a talent and maturity that belies her mere ten years of age). As for Danny Stiles and Bonnie Kovar as the Male and Female Authority Figures (i.e. every other adult role in the show), each gives deliciously original touches to the many cameos they bring to hilarious life.
Not to be ignored is 3-D’s all-around sensational ensemble: Kenji Crockett as Thad, Chris Duir as Fender, Chelsea Emma Franko as Brenda, Jacob Haren as Brad, James-Darrell as Duane, Chester Lockhart as Sketch, Micaela Martinez as Shelley, Desmond Newson as Gilbert, Domonique Paton as Lorraine, Hannah Simmons as Tammy, Matthew L. Sims, Jr. as Leroy, Daniel Switzer as IQ, and Tory Trowbridge as Lou Ann, and featured as the girl-group The Dynamites are Marliss Amiea, Carey Rebecca Brown, and Salisha Thomas. Jon M. Wailin is swing.
Take a look at the credits already on these triple-threats’ résumés and you’ll see plenty of leading and major supporting roles, the hallmark of a Broadway-caliber ensemble. Talent and experience shines in their acting, vocal performances, and the precision, style, and high energy they lend to the virtually non-stop dance moves choreographer extraordinaire Dana Solimando has given them to execute.
Allen Everman gets top marks for his expert musical direction and for conducting the tiptop 3-D orchestra.
3-D’s is also the best-looking Hairspray I’ve seen since Broadway. William Ivey Long’s costumes won a Tony, and deservedly so, and here they look brand spanking new. David Rockwell’s Tony-nominated scenic design arrives intact from its London/Las Vegas engagements courtesy of Musical Theatre West, and not only does it have the three-dimensional look so rarely achieved in a touring set, it looks even better when not dwarfed by an overly large proscenium as in a previously reviewed production. Julie Ferrin’s sound design makes ensemble vocals and orchestral accompaniment sound gorgeously rich, thanks also to Plummer Auditorium’s upgraded sound system. (That being said, some dialog and solo lyrics were occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, and there were a number of mike glitches on Opening Night.) Cliff & Cat Senior’s 51 (count’em) wigs are some of the best I’ve seen in a Hairspray production. Kudos go out also to Aja Bell’s costume coordination and Tessa Hanrahan’s prop coordination.
Last but not least is Jean-Yves Tessier’s lighting design, quite possibly the very best of the dozens of Tessier designs I’ve seen, making every Technicolor element of Long’s and Rockwell’s costumes and sets positively pop out, in addition to numerous exciting moving-spot effects.
Sharing credit for this fabulous Hairspray are production stage manager Lisa Palmire, assistant stage manager Nicole Wessel, technical director Kevin Clowes, associate choreographer Stefan Raulston, assistant choreographer-dance captain Paton, and assistant director Matt Benedict.
Having now seen a grand total of eleven Hairsprays, it must be obvious to anyone reading this review how much I love the show. Still, I may have to think twice before electing to see production number twelve. Unless it shows the promise of at the very least coming close to 3-D’s, this reviewer may decide to call it quits at number eleven. It’s what they call leaving on a high note, and this time that note is very high indeed.
Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.
October 13, 2012
Photos: Isaac James Creative