“…your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.”
“Star Wars: A New Hope”
Okay, I will freely admit that the first couple of times I attended a show at OnStage Productions, my eyes concealed a perfect gem, literally at my feet. When one arrives at The Old Mill in Lexington, it looks like someone converted a couple of ancient warehouses into an upscale brewpub, added a small shop or two, then called it a day. While these establishments do exist, there’s also something quite special just a few feet underground.
Housed in a renovated downstairs area, OnStage has created the look, feel, and atmosphere of a cozy, hip, Off-Broadway house. The space is a bit cramped, and has a slightly “rough at the edges” feel, as I firmly believe all good playhouses should. Be prepared to sit close to your seatmates, but that’s all part of the aura and style OnStage has created in building what could easily be a 100-seat, upstairs, Greenwich Village theatre. Just set your personal space requirements to “NYC mode,” and you’ll have a blast.
Speaking of blasts, Director Robert Harrelson truly blew us away with Saturday night’s performance of Hairspray, The Musical, which continues its run this Thursday-Sunday. With a cast full of talent, and some most innovative staging, Harrelson makes the show work like a well-oiled machine. The set, though simple in design, effectively creates the show’s various locales through a quartet of four-sided columns, outstanding use of lighting to suggest a specific space, and a never-ending flow of kinetic energy from the cast, who all move things around just in time to be perfectly in place for the next scene. The action of the play never wanes, nor does the seemingly boundless energy of the cast. One of the highest compliments I can give a musical is that it “never stops moving,” which perfectly describes this version of Hairspray.
And of the performance, itself? Well, it had me singing along with half the score, and laughing uproariously, often at the most inappropriate jokes and one-liners. Again, I must sing Harrelson’s praises for DOING THE SHOW AS WRITTEN. Hairspray, the John Waters film which gave rise to the musical, was subversive as hell, made fun of cultural stereotypes, and embraced the taboo with mischievous glee. The musical has toned down a bit of Waters’ signature vulgarity, but keeps its norm-shattering and cheeky storyline intact. Harrelson has not altered the script in any way, nor has he “bleeped out” a single potentially-controversial line. This is Hairspray as it was written to be played, not a sanitized-for-grandma production. (Incidentally, I saw several grandma-types laughing and enjoying the show right along with me.) Bravo for Harrelson for his faithfulness to the work, and the ensuing quality that comes with that integrity.
The cast has some double-casting, with about half the roles being played at all performances, with others alternating between two actors. My friends and I saw “Cast A,” and they delivered a fast-paced, turbo-charged, roller coaster of a ride that I’m sure is matched in quality by “Cast B.”
Leading the cast as Edna Turnbladt is Bradley Watts (who shares the role with Jeffrey Sigley.) Watts is great fun to watch, and throws himself enthusiastically into the part. There’s a definite nod to Harvey Fierstein’s Edna, but Watts makes the role his own, not only vocally, but also through the creation of a slightly softer, somewhat less acerbic Edna than we’ve seen from other productions. Without ever losing the comedy or the no-nonsense personality, Watts gives us an Edna that retains her strength, but never at the cost of her femininity. Her rapport with husband Wilbur, played in both casts by Theodore Reynolds, is spot-on, and the two clearly trust each other as scene partners, creating a snapshot of the trust and affection between Edna and Wilbur. Reynolds is appropriately goofy without ever resorting to mugging for the audience, and makes Wilbur the lovable doofus with great success.
As Tracy Turnbladt, Whitney McDonald shines in a role she is clearly delighted to be playing. Her talent is undeniable, and she’s clearly confident in the character choices she has made. A “plus-sized” social warrior and crusader for justice, McDonald’s Tracy is also quite lovely. (Think Nigella Lawson meets a Designing Women-era Delta Burke, with a dash of Adele thrown in,) and serves as a perfect example of how beauty not only comes from within, but also that outer beauty can take many forms. McDonald allows Tracy a sweetness that never compromises her commitment to equality and progress. As for her vocals, one word. Wow! Harrelson has clearly followed the old theatrical adage of “cast the best singers first,” and McDonald can deliver on a ballad or belt the paint off the back wall, without ever losing pitch or sincerity. (Tracy is played on alternate nights by Katie Edelson.)
As foils for the Turnbladt women, we meet Velma and Amber Von Tussle, a former pageant star, and her beauty-queen daughter, Lisa Baker and Zanna Mills, respectively, who share the roles with Leslie Dellinger and JoJo Wallace. Baker brings down the house with her “Miss Baltimore Crabs” number, and Mills, who demonstrated her skill at playing sweet and innocent as Mary Ann in last season’s Gilligan’s Island: The Musical, shows that she can play “mean girl” Amber with equal aplomb. Mills also makes her debut as a choreographer in this production, and the result is a series of well-rehearsed, toe-tapping, fun choreography that almost pulls the audience members into the aisles to boogie down.
As David LaTorre performs with both casts, I can quite literally say that there isn’t a weak (L)ink in the show. (Thanks, folks, I’ll be playing here all week.) In what could easily be a standard, Richie Cunningham-esque boyfriend role, LaTorre find’s Link’s humanity in every sense of the word. Neither Superboy nor “bad boy,” Link finds himself at several personal and ethical crossroads, and LaTorre conveys well his sense of conflict, as well as his desire to do what is right, even if it costs him. Ara-Viktoria Goins is a somewhat sexier Motormouth Maybelle than devotees of Hairspray may be used to, but it works brilliantly with the character’s believe-in-yourself philosophy. Goins, like McDonald, has a huge voice that can shake the rafters, as well as purr seductively, as she demonstrates in her performance of “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful.”
Much of the social statements in Hairspray center around the budding romance between Seaweed Stubbs (Joshua Wright) and Penny Pingleton (Camryn Harsey, alternating with Kari Tilghman.) Seaweed is black, Penny is white, and it’s 1962, so there’s plenty of era-based controversy over their relationship. While never preachy or heavy-handed, their story strikes at the core message of the play, which is that what’s on the outside doesn’t matter. Both performers approach the material with a light touch, but their message of social justice, equality, and the strength of unity comes through loud and clear. Wright and Harsey both bring strong voices and considerable stage presence to their roles.
Debra Leopard and Mark DiNovo, as usual, turn in memorable, fully-realized, enjoyable characters. While Leopard is a hoot as Penny’s religious-fanatic mother (and also shines in a smaller role as the High School principal,) DiNovo had me doubled over with laughter every time he took the stage. His two “bonus” roles in “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “The Big Doll House” are absolute side-splitters, and his lame-clad Mr. Spritzer is a delight. Linda Lawton Brochin serves up a couple of hilarious cameos, and Karlton Timmerman’s Corny Collins hits all the right notes as a smarmy-but-charming dance show host, and manages to show off a very nice singing voice, as well.
Were there a few negatives? Yes, but none that marred the experience. The musicians (yes, Hairspray utilizes live musicians, which I strongly support) could be a bit overpowering at times, but to be fair, we were seated fairly close to them. A couple of the soloists had to struggle with a note that was too high or too low, and I occasionally missed a lyric or two. There was one small glitch during a scene change, but by the time I even noticed, it had been corrected.
OnStage Productions is a short, 20-minute drive from Downtown Columbia, and I strongly encourage everyone to make that drive. Hairspray is slick, polished, well-paced, and provides a subtle reminder of the importance of equality and acceptance in society.
Hairspray concludes its run this Thursday-Sunday. Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.onstagesc.com
Frank Thompson is Theatre Editor for Jasper.