Coming into the Premier Centre for the Arts in Middletown, DE, the energy is palpable. Inside an unassuming building that certain reviewers may have driven past twice with GPS and still missed, the audience murmur of anticipation is so loud that I feared the show had begun before I arrived. A slideshow of the previous and future events plays, an aspect that could be tacky if not perfectly executed, and it was. The space is tiny, holding maybe 100 audience members, and the set almost seems to surround the audience. Then the show begins.
The energy of this production is phenomenal. Having seen HAIRSPRAY previously on Broadway, and more recently and locally at Cab Calloway School for the Arts (both of which I loved), I can honestly say that I have never felt an energy quite like this. Opening night jitters, adrenaline, and youthful exuberance made a perfect combination in the PCADE production.
Stand out performances abound, especially from the supporting actors playing Edna Turnblad, Seaweed, and Velma. And I have to admire the performance of Edna most of all. There is such an easy trap to fall into, either relying too heavily on the joke of it being a man in drag, or trying too hard to play it as an actual woman – this production embraced the gag as well as the heart of the character, into a perfect balance. My only complaint with casting is a desire to see both more male and African American actors onstage, surely a pain felt by the theatre as well. The substitutions of gender and double casting a few actors solve these problems almost seamlessly.
The choreography is inspired, a pleasant surprise any time so many actors are fit on such a small stage. Speaking to audience members of several of the other local HAIRSPRAYs, many comment on the extensive sets and props, and how the show couldn’t work without them. Not so with this production, which truly relies on its performances. It’s a big gamble, and it pays off in a big way. The space is used dynamically and creatively, creating individual looks for all the locations with only 3 platforms (only one of which rolls) and a couple of blocks. The costumes also deserve a big shout out. Not only was this the design area to shine, but many places and characters were defined the moment I saw the clothes. Ms. Pinky’s collection as worn by our Turnblad women are a special treat, and worth the price of admission by themselves. Lighting is simple but elegantly executed
Surprisingly for the size of space, mics would not have been a bad idea. Not that the voices aren’t strong, but 100 bodies and a high ceiling ate up sound considerably more than I would have expected. Even being a few rows back I had some trouble hearing. Additionally, while I loved the use of space, the playing area for the Turnblad house was a full 90 degrees from half of the audience, so looking to the side for a long period of time can cause some strain to the neck.
These few complaints aside, it is a delight for this reviewer, who grew up performing with companies like Premier Centre for the Arts to see young actors take on such difficult pieces and to achieve artistic success in such a big way. HAIRSPRAY is an ambitious undertaking, but this production just might be the must see of the summer!
Music and Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
August 5-21, 2011
Premier Centre for the Arts
27 Anderson Street