San Diego Rep. rocks the house down with ‘Hairspray’
By Carol Davis
SAN DIEGO– “Oh what a night”! The San Diego Repertory Theater has joined forces with San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts and is mounting, as the opening show of its 35th season, the Tony Award winning musical Hairspray.
Based on the John Waters 1988 cult film (I happened to catch the newer version on TV the following night) the original Broadway (book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Mark Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Mark Shaiman) production opened in 2002, was directed by San Diego’s own Jack O’Brien, ran for over 2,500 performances and won eight Tony’s (including Best Musical).
Although the setting is 1960’s Baltimore the theme of the show is about an over weight teenaged gal Tracy Turnblad (Bethany Slumka) who loves dancing. Fitting in with her peers and becoming a regular on the hometown dance show, The Corny Collins Show (Victor Hernandez) would be the ultimate for her. It would be like being on American Bandstand, only in Baltimore.
The story could be about anyone trying to be accepted by their peers but there is more. Running about even in the theme of themes department is the battle of Race and Grace that comes right out of the twenty first century playbook where BIG is out and Black is bad and Whites define the standards.
Here’s the Scooby Doo. Plus sized Tracy Turnblad is a bubbly, happy and spunky (“Good Morning Baltimore”) teen that loves to dance. She does have trouble though, getting to school on time and aside from being a ‘big’ girl has big hair. For these offences, she’s sent to detention where a group of Black kids are there for various and sundry reasons.
They introduce her to a different kind of dancing and music, which she quickly adapts herself to. Here she meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Tony Melson) son of the host of Negro Day, Motormouth Maybelle (Pam Trotter). Seaweed teaches her some of his dance step that she actually uses the next day at the school’s Sophomore Hop. (“The Madison”)
Meanwhile, Tracy’s parents, Edna (Peter Van Norden) and her Dad Wilber (Steve Gunderson) who owns the Har-De-Har-Hut joke store, are more or less supportive of Tracy’s dreams to dance on the TV show, but her Mom is more pessimistic about her weight being an issue if she does audition for the local Collins Show. (“Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now”). She compares her large size to hampering her own dreams and doesn’t want Tracy to be hurt. Her Dad, on the other hand, encourages her to follow her dreams, which she does. But Tracy’s Mom’s warnings about her size are the least of her worries.
In charge of the show is Velma Von Tussle (Leigh Scarritt), a bigoted, hateful and revengeful little woman and show’s producer whose only objective is for her daughter Amber (Megan Martin) to win all the marbles in the Miss Hairspray Pageant. Velma does her best to sabotage and get revenge (“Velma’s Revenge”) on anything Tracy has in the works like refusing to let her audition because of her size. (“The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs. Adding insult to injury, Tracy also brings along (to the audition) her new Black friend Little Inez (Victoria Matthews) who is immediately, if not sooner, kicked out of the studio by Velma. And the beat goes on.
Regardless of the trials and tribulations Tracy faces and overcomes, and there are many, Hairspray is an up beat show that emphasizes that good can and does win out over evil and integration is not a thing of the past but is still (to this day) an integral part of the daily conversation.
The production at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, with the largest cast ever (26), a live orchestra under the direction of Bill Doyle and conducted by Tamar Page and the first regional production is one big happy and wild love fest. Between Tracy integrating the entire Corny Collins Show to her winning over the hearts and minds of her fellow contestants to her upending the nasty Velma to her shocking the socks off everyone by winning the love of Link Larkin (Efren Ramirez) Amber’s heart throb and the swoon of all the gals, the show rocks with surprises and talent.
Artistic director Sam Woodhouse has brought out some fine local and new talent as well the tried and true. Steve Gunderson is a scream and a hoot as Tracy’s goofy dad. But when he and Edna tip the light fantastic and swirl around the dance floor in what seemed to be an endless number (“You’re) Timeless to Me”) it brought the house down. In fact all the dancing (Javier Velasco) is on the spot lively especially with the stage (Trevor Norton) filled to capacity with the talents of the SPCA students.
Leigh Scarritt who stands less than five feet is menacing looking as nasty Velma wielding her hateful plots but getting away with none is another powerhouse of energy. Tim Irving, a gem of a comedian and actor, fills in as several of the male authority figures doing his split second costume changes (Mary Larson) with a straight face.
Peter Van Norden (the part of Edna was written for drag), for his large size is soft-spoken and quite gentle as Tracy’s mom. Bethany Slomka is more than believable as Tracy. Stacey Hardke is perfectly reliable as Tracy’s best friend Penny to be the shy and retired shlep along until she breaks out of her mold and takes off dancing with her new favorite squeeze, Seaweed.
Tony Melson is another talent to keep your eyes on. He’s good looking and one hell of a dancer. Pam Trotter is a standout as Motormouth Maybelle who can belt out a tune a la Aretha Franklin (“Big blond and Beautiful”, “I Know Where I’ve Been”). Watch out for another less than five foot tall gal to make it to the big time. Victoria Matthews, (as Little Inez) is a vocal major at SCPA and has been ‘acting since 6th grade’. Standing next to a tall Van Norden one might lose her in the crowd, but not her voice.
Overall, this is one big happy show, lots of misty Hairspray and one the entire family will love. Enjoy
See you at the theatre.
Dates: June 17-Aug. 15th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Musical Comedy
Where: 79 Horton Plaza San Diego, California 92101
Ticket Prices: $30.00-$53.00
Theatre critic Davis is based in San Diego
Venue: Lyceum Stage