Mainstage’s HAIRSPRAY Does Enormously Well

by Jack Shaw

Genna Garofalo stars as Tracy in Mainstage Center for the Art's HAIRSPRAY, running at the Dennis Flyer Theatre on the campus of Camden County College through July 30.

So, here I am at another Mainstage show, one of many fine summer season offerings. This time it is the sweet, energetic, and bouncy musical with pop music and rhythm and blues from the ’60s, HAIRSPRAY. It seemed everyone in the audience, putting up with the hot night, was waiting for the energy to come from the stage, and it did–in waves. From the moment Genna Garofalo as “Tracy Turnblad” gets out of bed singing, “Good Morning, Baltimore” you could feel the energy mount. Then, the rest of the cast comes from the back of the theatre and everywhere on stage to join her in the opening number.

HAIRSPRAY was based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name. There’s no other way to say it: the play is a social commentary on the injustices of parts of American society in the 1960s. How can that possibly be fun? But it is. It’s 1962 and plump teenager Tracy Turnblad’s dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show. When Tracy wins a role on the show, she becomes a celebrity overnight and then launches a campaign to integrate the show. HAIRSPRAY was enormously successful on Broadway, winning eight out of the thirteen Tony nominations, and running for 2,500 performances. The London production was nominated for a record-setting eleven Laurence Olivier Awards, winning for Best New Musical and in three other categories.

Shaun Leavey as Edna Turnblatt in a scene from Mainstage Center for the Arts' HAIRSPRAY.

The story is sweet, the characters bubblegum sappy, but full of passion. It’s not reality, but it’s close enough to remind us of the day. That it is preachy is not to be denied. Even the early critics admitted it, but there is award-winning music, the living color of the ’60s, and passionate rebellion of youth to do what’s right. There is the subtle angst of youth seeking to fit in and be loved, the pain of prejudice, and love that sees no boundaries. Humans simply being humans, some seem to hurt others in ignorance, others come with compassion and a touch of forgiveness. In the end, we all get along.

The Dennis Flyer Theatre stage swells with Mainstage kids, 13 and up. That was the rule for this show. The actors, comprised of Summer Camp students and teachers, filled the stage and areas just off the stage easily. Mainstage has a large Summer Camp of over 500 “campers” who are learning about theatre acting, music and dance. I’m sure there weren’t 500 kids in the show, although there were a lot more than I like to see in a musical, but to their credit the numbers were handled very well and filled the stage with purpose.

Surprisingly, the dance numbers did well with the crowded stage as well; Renee Liciaga Chambers’ choreography, fit very well–showing high energy and interesting variety. At other times I have seen plays where the actors and crew are getting in each other’s way, but not here. In fact, scene changes were quite snappy and actors entered ready to work. I think the action–the dialogue between the musical numbers, may have suffered, at least from the audience’s perspective in viewing a scene, from too many people on stage, but it wasn’t for their lack of trying. People don’t do much for acoustics in a theatre or any room for that matter; hence, the muffled sound one hears at a party. Pair that situation with microphones fading in and out, and you lose some of the dialogue, parts of a song or a setup. Without the equipment, you do the best you can and this company was outstanding in doing its best.

I was amazed at the pace of this show. It seems odd to call a group this large on stage an ensemble; technically that’s what it is, but I feel “company” gives a better picture of the size of things. Having said that. The company radiated more energy than I could have imagined–especially when the music started. They worked together so well.

Sierra Johnson is a hit in the role of Motormouth Maybelle in Mainstage Center for the Arts' HAIRSPRAY running through July 30.

Genna Garofalo was truly how I imagined “Tracy Turnblad” to be. Vivacious and real with a big voice. Her friend, “Penny Pingleton” played by Valerie Berger grew on me with her quirky portrayal until by the end of the first act when I was definitely noting her character’s every word and action. Jonathan Oliva who played “Corny Collins” had that slender look of the ’60s, with a great voice and slick manner, seemed to glide in and out of each scene. I’ve never seen “Corny” played any better–not even in the film. Giovanni DiGabriele was truly believable as “Link Larkin” with a terrific voice and he had great chemistry with Genna.

Keith Wallace did a fine job with “Seaweed.” I’ve got one word for him. “Smoooooth.” He was an immediate presence, and you couldn’t help focusing on him and his moves. Brandi Esters as “Little Inez” as we used to say in Missouri “was cute as a bug.” It means she was a delight. Sierra Johnson as “Motormouth Maybelle” –when she sang–what a sound! It took my breath away.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the role of “Edna Turnblad” has always been intended to be played by a male in drag; in fact, Harvey Fierstein, who played the part on Broadway for several years won a Tony for his portrayal. And, I can’t leave out “Edna Turnblad” (Shaun Leavey) or “Wilbur Turnblad” (Reuben E. Natan), who nearly brought down the house in their syrupy “little” moment of love. Both guys did a great job with challenging roles of playing husband and wife to be sure. The song was precious and excellently performed.

I also liked Sarah Blake who played the “Gym Teacher” and the jail matron, and Claire Berger who played “Prudy Pingleton”. I understand the two swap roles for each show. And, of course, there is the “evil” Velma Von Tussle played with plenty of zeal and a strong singing voice by Kaitlin Shaginaw. The “evil” ones sometimes have the best parts, but most don’t know how much fun it is until someone calls out, “I loved hating you!” Jessica Pelland was perfectly bratty as “Amber Von Tussle,” Tracy’s nemesis. Her best came out in the “Cooty” number, but I wish she had danced more herself; the “Cooties” were cute. In all fairness though, Amber has to lose to Tracy, doesn’t she? Well, as long as it was on purpose.

Jessica Pelland as Amber Von Tussle and Kaitlin Shaginaw as Velma Von Tussle in a scene from the successful Mainstage Center for the Arts production of HAIRSPRAY.

The set built by the kids themselves was definitely creative and interesting–especially the oversized jukebox as a backdrop to everything. The costumes and the hairstyles put you in the ’60s.

There were the usual glitches one gets when the weather is funky like now. There seems no reason for them but they happen anyway. The sound fades at the wrong moment or the lighting isn’t operating when it should be. The high energy of this show makes that all pale in comparison.

The auditorium did heat up as the show went on. I’m not sure if the air was turned off on purpose or the stage lights and the audience, cast and crew just raised the temperature, but it did get warm. The intermission was overlong because it was also an opportunity to thank sponsors and donors. As hot as it was, what seems a little time to someone on a mission, is a lot to an audience uncomfortably sitting in the heating-up auditorium, waiting to see their children perform. Probably wasn’t the best time, but no one seemed to mind.

You should know that this show has a short run and many of the principal roles are double-cast, but if you’ve never seen HAIRSPRAY, this is an excellent opportunity to see some kids give it their all. I was impressed. There may have been a hazy sky but there were a lot of stars visible on stage tonight.

Music and Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
July 22-30, 2011
Mainstage Center for the Arts
at Dennis Flyer Theatre
Camden County College
Office: 856-232-1012
Tickets: 856-227-3091
Blackwood, NJ

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Mainstage’s HAIRSPRAY Does Enormously Well : Mainstage Center for the Arts July 24, 2011 - 5:25 pm

[…] Mainstage’s HAIRSPRAY Does Enormously Well. […]

Renee Chambers Liciaga July 24, 2011 - 6:25 pm

Thank You Jack for the great review.
Am glad that you enjoyed the show!! It Was wonderful working and teaching our next generation of amazing talent.


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