Pure theatrical joy fills Wright State University’s fantastic production of Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s 2003 Tony Award-winning musical “Hairspray.”
Radiantly performed by one of the most strikingly synchronized ensembles WSU has assembled, this funny, provocative, tuneful and uplifting tale of race and tolerance in 1962 Baltimore, based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, totally magnetizes with a breathtaking energy that rivals the original Broadway production. The ideal blend of Joe Deer’s vigorous direction and Teressa Wylie McWilliams’ marvelously sharp and spirited choreography remarkably produces non-stop, smile-inducing thrills effortlessly catapulting this showcase into the rare local realms of musical comedy heaven. The sheer exuberance of “Good Morning Baltimore” and “The Nicest Kids in Town,” the brilliantly precise “I Can Hear The Bells,” the flavorfully decade-inspired “Welcome to the 60’s,” the soulful exuberance of “Run and Tell That,” the seamlessly fluid transitions within “The Madison,” and the incredibly infectious finale are just some of the showstoppers worthy of endless encores.
The wonderfully vibrant Beth Conley endearingly portrays plus-sized teenage heroine Tracy Turnblad, who faces adversity while attempting to integrate the popular Corny Collins TV show. Tracy’s staunch desire to change the world in spite of numerous obstacles is not lost in Conley’s appealing performance complete with conviction, spunk, commendable vocals and fine dancing. Drew Helton equally shines as Edna, Tracy’s plain-spoken mother notably self-conscious about her weight. Exuding convincing femininity in drag, the hilarious Helton conveys a sweet sensitivity that humorously evaporates whenever his voice dips into a threatening lower register. He also establishes a bubbly rapport with the delightful Casey Jordan as Edna’s goofy husband Wilbur. They particularly interpret “Timeless to Me” beyond mere clowning to impressively depict a genuine reflection of an affectionate, enduring love between a man and a woman.
Jordan’s fellow featured players also provide strong, well crafted characterizations. Charming triple threat Ian DeVine dazzles as heartthrob Link Larkin, a budding pop artist forever changed by Tracy’s love and defiance. DeVine, a dynamite dancer compatibly paired with Conley, supplies a crisp, seductive rendition of “It Takes Two.” DeShawn Bowens, another fiery dancer, hits the mark as Seaweed J. Stubbs, who falls for Tracy’s ditzy best friend Penny Pingleton, amusingly embodied by Melissa Hall. Kylie Santoro and Nikki Nathan are deliciously and respectively vengeful as Velma and Amber Von Tussle, a cunning mother/daughter team seeking to destroy Tracy. The handsome James Oblak oozes charisma as Corny Collins. Aziza Macklin brings a sunny groove to her vocally demanding role as rhyming radio personality Mothermouth Maybelle. Dani Cox is enjoyable as Maybelle’s daughter Little Inez. Terrific chameleons Justin Talkington and Chrissy Bowen nearly steal the show in multiple roles. As the glamorous Dynamites, Jessica Horton, Cyndii Johnson and Taylor Montgomery beautifully capture the Motown essence fueling “Welcome to the 60’s.” Hannah Aicholtz, Alimamy Barrie, Ian Blanco, Zach Cossman, Kevin Ferguson, Darius Fincher, Kenneth Foster, Jon Hacker, Jessica Horton, Derrick Jordan, Taryn Lemmons, Layne McDuffie, Amy Murphy and Sierra Stacy complete the highly entertaining cast.
Act 2 opener “The Big Dollhouse” is curiously cut, but it is a minor quibble within a staging splendidly accented by Pam Knauert-Lavarnway’s eye-catching, nostalgic scenic design, Matthew P. Benjamin’s colorful lighting design and musical director Rick Church’s top-notch orchestra. There is also a topical relevance that resonates here in the midst of our current climate, specifically as Maybelle reminds Tracy and others to stay strong in their quest for change prior to the gospel power ballad “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Her inspirational words are intended to address civil rights yet could be a rallying cry for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“Hairspray” is a familiar title for many Miami Valley theatergoers, but WSU’s version contains an inherently youthful enthusiasm unmatched by any previous production of the show in our area. Bravo!
“Hairspray” continues through Nov. 13 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Thursdays at 7 p.m. Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Act One: 73 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $18-$20. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500.
In related news, Wright State’s 2012-13 mainstage season will consist of “The Miracle Worker,” “Funny Girl,” “Witness for the Prosecution” and “Grand Hotel: The Musical.”