Electric Ensemble Propels HAIRSPRAY into the Spotlight

by Paul Recupero

Greg Kasander and Nicole Bright star in Steel River Playhouse's HAIRSPRAY.

There’s something delightfully refreshing about a musical that comes together nearly flawlessly…where a fortuitous blend of bold performances, slick transitions, and powerful vocals rushes through the theater like a hurricane, leaving a host of grinning audience members in its wake.  I’m not sure at what point during the show I stopped taking notes on what I was enjoying.  But eventually I realized it was fruitless and counterproductive.  Each time I looked down to write, I risked missing something great.

The best part about Steel River Playhouse’s HAIRSPRAY is that I can’t point to one or two standout moments to champion above the rest of the show.  Sure, I could go on about the appropriately extravagant set and colorful costumes, the dynamic soloists, the engaging choreography, the spot-on lighting…but at the end of the night it was how incredibly well the ensemble performed together that made the greatest impression.  Director and choreographer Zuhairah McGill, musical director Richard Oberholtzer, their production team and talented cast thoroughly earned the standing ovation they received (and likely will continue to receive every performance).

Nicole Bright and Willie Garner in a scene from HAIRSPRAY, running at Steel River Playhouse.

The plot is easy enough to follow.  After surprise auditions have been announced, “pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad has aspirations of performing on a The Corny Collins Show, a popular, televised teen dance extravaganza.  Along with her whimsical friend Penny, Tracy attends the auditions, meets heartthrob Link Larkin, but ultimately is rejected from consideration due to her size by the program’s bigoted, image-conscious producer Velma Von Tussle, whose similarly detestable daughter just happens to be one of the show’s stars.

Ultimately, Tracy meets up with young black dancer Seaweed J. Stubbs, who teaches her all the right moves to earn her a spot on the program, and Tracy becomes an instant hit.  When Tracy realizes that Stubbs, his sister, and the rest of the local black community are barred from appearing the program due to their race, however, she enlists the help of her eccentric parents in leading a protest against the station, which winds up landing everyone in a heap of trouble.  Notwithstanding the serious social issues it addresses, HAIRSPRAY’s energetic musical numbers work hard in keeping the show upbeat.

Nicole Bright is a perfect fit as the endearing and motivated Tracy, with a superb voice to boot.  Matt Kiesling is suitably dashing as her love interest Link.  Jordan Popky nails the understated role of Penny, successfully punching each flippant one-liner.  Willie Garner showcases impressive vocal and dancing chops as Seaweed.  Greg Kasander serves up just the right amount of “game show host” faux charm as Corny Collins, and Donna Dougherty’s implacable Velma is the witch (with a “b”) you love to hate.  As Tracy’s father Wilbur, Bill Kiesling is lovably goofy, and an outrageous Bob Goretski in drag steals the scenes he’s in as Tracy’s spirited mother Edna.  The remainder of the performers, unfortunately too many to mention here, are also praiseworthy, especially those actors who play multiple roles.

Brittney Hines, Nicole Bright, Bob Gorestski, Bill Kiesling and Jordan Popky in Steel River Playhouse's HAIRSPRAY, running through June 24 in Pottstown, PA.

As mentioned, Steel River’s production shines brightest in its ability to keep the audience enthralled throughout with its captivating mixture of intricate choreography, humor and catchy musical numbers.  There is always something interesting happening on stage.  My only quibble was with the sound balance.  The orchestra, under the capable direction of Barbara Newberry, sounded fantastic but more than a few times drowned out the soloists.  I hope the mic levels can be adjusted for the remainder of the run.

Although the end of its current season, HAIRSPRAY is Steel River Playhouse’s first mainstage production since its rebranding (the venue formerly as known as Tri-PAC) and serves as a harbinger of exciting things to come.  Don’t miss it.

Book by Mark O’Donnell, Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman
Directed by Zuhairah McGill
June 7 – 24, 2012
Steel River Playhouse
245 E. High Street
Pottstown, PA 19464


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