Let's All Just Dance Together at Skylight's "Hairspray"
The Skylight’s production of “Hairspray,” running through December 30 in the Cabot Theatre, is simply a riot.
It’s a riot of hot pink, infectious tunes, flashy dance moves, social justice and true love conquering all. And underneath the clouds of Ultra Glow hairspray, towering hairdos, and teen idols of 1962, “Hairspray” has a very simple message. In the words of Tracy Turnblad, the spunky, plus-sized heroine of the show, “I just think it’s stupid that we can’t all dance together.”
Based on the quirky, 1988 John Waters film of the same name, the musical follows Tracy’s efforts to desegregate the teen dance TV program, “The Corny Collins Show.” It also celebrates people of all shapes and sizes, all races and orientations, who get out of the house, get into some fabulous clothes and get down. The dazzling production, directed by Chicago based Lili-Anne Brown, is a high-energy, infectiously kinetic celebration of all those who will not let racist laws, narrow-mindedness, or the spite of mean girls interfere with their groove.
There is an obvious protagonist in this show — the irrepressible Tracy, played by Chicago actress Maisie Rose, who projects sunny confidence and conviction that’s as big as her bouffant hair. The story is hers from the moment we see the teenager wake up in her bedroom filled with the 45 records she adores. Tracy promptly bursts into song with “Good Morning Baltimore” — an impossibly upbeat ode to her hometown, which even includes a neighborhood flasher and a local drunk. Rose’s big, brassy voice matches her character’s big dreams and even bigger heart. This Pollyanna idealism sets the tone for the rest of the evening, but “Hairspray” isn’t oblivious to reality. It’s simply choosing a better version of it — rewriting the events that originally inspired Waters’s story.
Every underdog heroine needs a best friend; Tracy’s is the relentlessly awkward Penny Pingleton. As Penny, Ann Delaney channels a nerd who’s all elbows and sharp angles until she falls for the king of smooth dance moves, Seaweed J. Stubbs (the uber-talented Gilbert Domally). Her interracial romance and her transformation from an ugly duckling under her mother’s thumb to an independent swan with some dance moves of her own fits perfectly with the “happily ever after” vibe of the show. As fun as Delaney is to watch, Domally is equally mesmerizing, dancing his way through detention and introducing the gang to his mother, Motormouth Maybelle — an activist who owns a record store specializing in “race music.”
With so many dynamite leads, it’s hard to believe that so many scenes get stolen by those in smaller roles, but around every Baltimore corner there hides another character who will knock you out. Bethany Thomas, as Motormouth, is simply breathtaking. Recently seen at the Rep in the one woman show, “Songs for Nobodies,” Thomas exhibits her impressive vocal range and her knack for filling every lyric to the brim with raw emotion. Her anthem “Big Blonde and Beautiful” is a bold, “here I am world” declaration, while her catalogue of oppression in “I Know Where I’ve Been,” had her fellow castmates as well as audience members in tears.
And then the tiny Terynn Erby-Walker, playing her daughter Little Inez, does the impossible and steals the scene out from under her.
While the original movie featured Divine as Tracy’s mother Edna, this production has the completely delightful Tommy Novak sporting a 54 triple E bra under her housecoat and towering over her husband Wilbur, the diminutive David Flores. Instead of camping up the drag role, Novak plays Edna straight, which is much funnier. She leans into her concerns for her daughter, her isolation from society due to her unusual size, and her quashed dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Novak and Flores are an adorably mismatched couple visually and an endearing couple emotionally. Their duet “You’re Timeless to Me,” was one of the sweetest love scenes of the show, earning them an encore.
Tracy and Edna’s polar opposites are the deliciously evil Velma Von Tussle (Samantha Sosterich) and her vile, grasping daughter Amber (Amber Smith). Velma is the TV station big shot and former beauty queen, Miss Baltimore Crabs (insert jokes here). She made her daughter the star of “The Corny Collins Show” and a shoe-in for Miss Hairspray, while leading the charge against letting black teenagers dance alongside the all white teeny-boppers described in song as “The Nicest Kids in Town.” Amber is the snotty blonde who hungers for the spotlight, just like dear old mom. Incredibly, the world of “Hairspray” is so just that they both get their comeuppance, and their chance to join in the finale.
The singing in “Hairspray” is fabulous across the board, but it is upstaged by the ambitious choreography by Ryan Cappleman. Returning after last season’s boffo “Urinetown,” Cappleman outdoes himself with number after number of exuberant, ambitious, full-stage dance parties, executed with both precision and joy. During “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now,” three teens and their mothers actually do-si-do with their bedroom furniture. It has to be seen to be believed.
A lot of those dancers are members of a youth ensemble of 16 high school students from across Milwaukee — which was a good idea for this production for a lot of reasons. First, it keeps things real. The characters they portray are supposed to be teenagers — why not cast the roles age appropriately? Second, it gives some of Milwaukee’s most talented young people a chance to participate in a professional production with a cast filled with seasoned stage veterans. There is nothing like learning from the pros as you dance alongside them. Next, it significantly broadens the audience for the show. Yes, the kids’ parents and grandparents are going to come see it. So are their friends — many of whom are probably coming to the Broadway Theatre Center for the first time. Everybody wins.
P.S. — There were a lot of “Skylight virgins” at the show on Saturday night. When Executive Director Jack R. Lemmon asked during the pre-show announcements if anyone in the audience was coming to see a show there for the first time, lots of hands shot up. There are few things more exciting to see than brand new patrons enjoying an amazing show. I hope “Hairspray” encourages them to attend lots more theater in the coming year.