Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s 2002 Tony Award-winning musical comedy “Hairspray” is a glorious hit all over again thanks to the Muse Machine’s truly delightful, impressively cast and genuinely crowd-pleasing production continuing through Sunday, Jan. 15 at the Victoria Theatre.
“Hairspray” is the arts education organization’s 33rd annual student musical and features 170 Muse students from across the Miami Valley. Based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, the show cleverly uses humor and cultural/societal attitudes to examine important and delicate subjects from racism and discrimination to body image and identity in segregated 1962 Baltimore. It speaks volumes that Tracy Turnblad’s fiery quest to integrate “The Corny Collins Show” is bolstered by the African-American community particularly because of the bond shared among them as outsiders. There is a warmhearted appeal in the foundation of “Hairspray,” but it’s hard to ignore Tracy’s tenacious boldness of accomplishing the impossible primarily for the sake of others. It would’ve been easy for co-director Joe Deer and co-director/choreographer Lula Elzy to gloss over some of the prickly paths along Tracy’s journey to avoid ruffling anyone’s feathers. However, sufficient time is spent focusing on the pivotal adversity Tracy endures ultimately allowing her to become a stronger, more confident young woman unafraid to change her world.
Inclusion is a key factor in the storytelling which inherently provides Muse Machine the opportunity to present one of its most terrifically diverse casts. The very endearing, vocally firm Kaite Hubler is spunky and steadfast as the plus-sized Tracy, effortlessly pulling the audience into the action at the outset proclaiming “Good Morning Baltimore.” As Tracy’s devoted yet introverted mom Edna, Muse newcomer Fischer Barnett delivers an utterly believable, breakthrough performance that will be discussed for years to come. Thanks to his marvelously grounded maturity, Barnett (a freshman!) astoundingly interprets Edna’s anxieties, longings, desires, and nuances as her sheltered existence unexpectedly blossoms with fresh possibilities. Jack Lewis, a standout last season in Dayton Playhouse’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Dayton Theatre Guild’s “Last Gas,” is wonderfully zany as Tracy’s dad/joke shop proprietor Wilbur, particularly joining Barnett for a lovingly comedic rendition of “Timeless to Me.” As aspiring singer Link Larkin, Tracy’s handsome object of affection and a popular component of “Corny Collins,” Kyle Bates (notably offering a seductively suave rendition of “It Takes Two” hilariously concluding with quick coldness) masters Link’s charming duality as an amusingly square heartthrob. Clare Kneblik as intolerant, unethical “Corny Collins” producer Velma Von Tussle and Lauren Eifert as Velma’s equally malicious daughter Amber are first-rate villainesses and vocalists. Jack Blair is perfectly chipper as forward-thinking showman Corny Collins. Ana Smith, another great vocalist, is a true find and a natural comedienne as Tracy’s goofy best friend Penny Pingleton. As dance-happy Seaweed J. Stubbs, Penny’s boyfriend, Mark Antony Howard electrifies with a fantastically energetic rendition of showstopper “Run and Tell That.” As Seaweed’s mom/R&B music celebrity Motormouth Maybelle, splendidly sassy Kennedy Cook, another knockout Muse newcomer and a dynamic vocalist, brings down the house with a spine-tingling, standing ovation-worthy rendition of the emotional, gospel-infused anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Winning featured portrayals extend to Amber Butler as the plucky Little Inez, Adam Clark as the excitable Mr. Pinky, Jacob Jones as Mr. Spritzer, Mackenzie Wolcott as Prudy Pingleton, Michelle Strauss as Gym Teacher/House of Detention Matron, and Hannah Bradshaw, Mae’Lesha Cooper, Aliya Johnson, Nivella Ochen, and Kiama Wa-Tenza as the elegant, Motown-esque Dynamites soulfully belting “Welcome to the ’60s.” The cute array of “Baltimore Kids” featured in the show is also noteworthy.
In addition, Elzy’s rip-roaring, flavorful choreography authentically and vibrantly captures the spirit and grooves of the 1960s. In fact, there’s a fitting homage to Tina Turner within exuberant finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Tiia E. Torchia’s colorful period costumes (expertly coordinated by Toni Donato Shade and Alisa Vukasinovich), J. Branson’s striking sets, and music director Sean Michael Flowers’ professional-caliber orchestra are added benefits. Missed cues dampened John Rensel’s lighting design and David Sherman’s sound design on opening night but the errors weren’t a major hindrance.
One of the hallmarks of this infectiously joyful “Hairspray” is certainly its scope and size. What a treat to see Muse Machine uniquely fill the entirety of the Victoria stage to make Baltimore look and feel like a credible, thriving city, specifically propelling “Good Morning Baltimore” into one of the finest, excellently active opening numbers the organization has conceived. The impact is on par with longtime Muse director/choreographer Nat Horne’s stylish execution of opener “A Weekend at Hareford” in 1997’s “Me and My Girl.”
Having seen 21 Muse musicals, trust me when I say “Hairspray” is absolutely one of the best. Bravo!
“Hairspray” continues through Jan. 15 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton. Performances are Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 70 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $26-$60. For tickets or more information, call (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com. The production, produced by Douglas Merk, is dedicated to Michael Kenwood Lippert, Director of the Preschool and Elementary School Program and Program Artist for Muse Machine.