The plus-size mother/daughter duo of Tracy and Edna Turnblad have arrived at Escondido’s Welk Theatre in a mid-sized Hairspray that diverts, dazzles, and delights under director-choreographer Dan Mojica’s accomplished hand.

Based on John Waters’ 1988 cult film of the same name, the 2003 Broadway smash tells the tale of full-figured teenager Tracy Turnblad’s dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a 1962 Baltimore version of American Bandstand.

Anyone familiar with Waters’ movie or its multiple Tony award-winning musical adaptation (with songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) knows that Tracy is the daughter of a 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.

Despite some extra pounds and a then shockingly progressive attitude towards integration, Edna’s pride-and-joy 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.

With Mojica assuredly in the director’s chair, Hairspray at the Welk may well be the best acted of the multitude of regional productions I’ve seen over the past several years. It’s certainly every bit as entertaining as any of the bigger, flashier Hairsprays I’ve reviewed.

1231162_10151892054015944_1430435557_n Randall Hickman, who won a Best Actor Scenie for playing Edna two years ago, once again puts his own wonderfully distinctive stamp on this man-sized dame who remains a lady whether dressed in a drab house dress or begowned to the nines. In 2011, I wrote, “Hickman’s loveable Edna is so real, richly layered (no pun intended), and entirely believable that you may well find yourself referring to her (excuse me, his) superb performance in the feminine.” The past two years have only added layers to Hickman’s bravua work, a performance that may well be the definitive Edna Turnblad—or at least of those I’ve seen.

539773_10151892054160944_1291391296_n Bethany Slomka matches Hickman every step of the way as Tracy, a role that won her a Scenie in Hairspray’s 2010 Southern California Regional Theater Premiere at San Diego Rep. If I then described her as “delightful, cuddly, and winning,” I can now add that Slomka circa 2013 plays Tracy with such unrestrained verve that I dare anyone not to fall for her hilariously original take on the role, whether she’s 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.”

A quartet of recent Scenie winners prove that their Best Performance San Diego wins were no flukes.

I dare anyone to recognize the magnificent Brenda Oen’s Motormouth Maybelle as being played by the same actress who dazzled twice this past year as South Pacific’s Bloody Mary. Not only does Oen have pipes to rival the best Motormouths before her, she digs so deep into “Big Blonde And Beautiful” Maybelle’s pre-Civil Rights Movement pain and sorrow that her “I Know Where I’ve Been” will break even the toughest hearts. (And Oen makes Motormouth darned sexy and sassy to boot.)

Fellow South Pacific Scenie winner Shaun Leslie Thomas creates one inspired comic cameo after another as Male Authority Figure, aka Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway owner Mr. Pinky, high school principal Patterson, and Mr. Harriman F. Spritzer, the President of Ultra Clutch Hairspray, each one more outrageously funny than the next. (The same can be said for Female Authority Figure Robin LaValley, whose Prison Matron, Gym Teacher, and Penny’s prudish mom Prudy Pingleton are equally side-splitting concoctions.)

The divine Eileen Bowman (a Scenie winner for Company) steals every scene she’s in as Velma Von Tussle, making the Corny Collins Show producer (and proud ex-Miss Baltimore Crabs) far more than merely a cookie-cutter villainess. Like the best daytime soap divas before her, Bowman creates a multi-dimensioned Velma you love to hate, and can’t help liking despite yourself. If there’s been a better Velma before Bowman, I haven’t seen her.

602933_10151892047055944_407386173_n As for Hannah M. James, having the girl-next-door Best Actress Scenie winner (for last winter’s South Pacific) play Amber Von Tussle transforms Velma’s spoiled progeny from chip-off-the-old-bitch into a teenager who’s just been taught the wrong life lessons by an ill-guided mom. It’s a fresh new take on the role and it works.

As he did two years ago, Hickman’s real-life love Douglas Davis once again wins hearts with his goofy Wilber Turnblad charm, the authentic affection between this Edna and her man getting its show-stopping showcase in the infectiously romantic soft-shoe duet “(You’re) Timeless To Me.”

A terrific Luke Yellin creates an especially likeable, genuine Link, one whose good-heartedness is never in doubt, so that when he falls for the girl who makes him laugh, you absolutely believe it’s love at its purest.

Elizabeth Casper is an utter delight as Tracy’s racial line-crossing best pal Penny Pingleton, Dominique Petit Frere is so dynamic and charismatic as Seaweed J. Stubbs, you wish we got to spend more time with the detention heartthrob, and the multi-talented Alan Everman makes the very most of his every moment as Corny, America’s Favorite Eternal Teen.

Alexandra Slade is a petite ball of fire as Little Inez, while Kristina Leopold, Jocline Mixson, Yvonne, and Danny Dwaine Wells II prove dynamite as Tracy’s fellow detention kids, the three female d-girls doubling glamorously as Shirelles/Chiffons stand-ins The Dynamites.

In reducing cast size from Broadway’s twenty-seven to a still considerable twenty-one, the Welk has cut down on the quantity of Corny Collins Show “Nicest Kids In Town,” but not on the quality of performances, the surviving kids brought to vivid, individualized life by triple-threats Katerli Crail, Danny Hansen, Lauren King, and Kevin McDonald.

The entire cast perform director-choreographer Mojica’s lively ‘60s dance steps to energetic perfection while vocalizing under Justin Gray’s topnotch musical direction, accompanied by Hairspray’s terrific live band—Gray on piano, Mike Masessa on drums, Vince Cooper on guitar, Mark Margolies on reeds, Elizabeth Meeker on trumpet, and Andy Ingersoll on keyboard.

1377535_10151892046525944_627525341_n Having all six musicians onstage makes it hardly noticeable that this Hairspray is light on scenic design. “Scenic elements” (courtesy of Theatrical Productions Inc., Candlelight Pavilion, and IVRT) are all that’s needed to create locales as distinct as Motormouth’s record shop or the local jailhouse, props provided by Cindy Smith. Costume designer-coordinator Janet Pitcher’s hundreds of costumes (provided by Theatre Company, Upland) are each and every one as ‘60s groovy as Kathryn Maholick and Cilff Senior’s teased and hairsprayed wigs and Jennifer Edwards-Northover’s fabulously flashy lighting. If there were any issues with Patrick Hoyny’s sound design on Opening Night, this reviewer didn’t hear them.

Hairspray is produced by Joshua Carr. Edwards-Northover is assistant theater manager, and Crystal Burden and Richard Reed are crew.

I’ve now seen a grand total of thirteen Hairsprays, with Hairspray at the Welk right up there at the top of the bunch. Though lighter on spectacle and glitz than most of its predecessors have been, performances put this one in a class by itself, adding up to a production that Welk Resort visitors and musical theater lovers won’t want to miss.

The Welk Theater, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr, Escondido.

–Steven Stanley
September 27, 2013

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