The Only Thing Better Than Hairspray! – Lots of Stuff

So, my aunt gave me and my mom and Andrea tickets to see the Broadway Rose’s production of “Hairspray” with her for today. I’d always meant to see a BR production, and they often produced big shows, so I was interested.

Disadvantage 1: Their theater is all the way out in Tigard (they still count for Portland Drammy Awards, but Clackamas doesn’t. I don’t get that).

Overcoming that, I drove with Andrea; the three of us (sans Mom, she was at a family function) enjoyed a delightful lunch, and were just tickled to be twelve minutes early for curtain.

Disadvantage 2: Nobody knew the production wasn’t going to be performed at, you know. The company’s own venue.

We were able to book it cross town and even found four seats together in the middle of the second row; Mom was nearly late since she never checks her voice mail and you don’t listen when I talk, Mom! But she made it, and the curtain went up.

I want to cover a few of the technical aspects before I get into my thoughts on the performances themselves:

Set design: A+! Fun and colorful, looked like a city, looked original, I liked it. Oh, extra points for the jailhouse, I loved the way they manipulated the cell doors. Lots of fun.
Costumes: B. I really liked what they had, but this is one of those excessively rare instances when I thought the lead had too few costume changes (there were two), whereas everyone else had several and I thought they were fun and funky. I particularly liked Amber’s changing pinks and plumes, and preferred Velma’s second costume to her first. Penny’s final change was stunning, and the Dynamite Girls were appropriately jaw dropping.
Tech: I’m pretty rabidly anti-mic. Yes, this auditorium was big enough where it was actually necessary, but I usually feel it is WAY overused. Not so here. I, uh….I guess that’s a good thing. I don’t know if it was because I was so close to the pit, but I kept squinting my eyes and thinking “WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU.” But when I could hear it was fine. There were no glaring technical issues to complain about. Liked the lighting, though I wouldn’t call it extraordinary.
Orchestra: Good. Sometimes it’s enough of a compliment to say you just didn’t notice the orchestra, and this is probably one of those times. There were occasions when I actively enjoyed them, but most of the time I just didn’t notice, and believe me, that is far preferable to the alternative.

Now, the rest:

I think it’s only fair to come right out and say that Hairspray isn’t my favorite show. Don’t get me wrong, I actually do like it. There was a while when I was pretty solidly indifferent to it, and even now, it’s not my go-to album when I want to go bouncing off the walls with glee. But I have nothing against it. It’s solidly well-written, it’s fun, I love the message, it’s memorable, I like the team, and I have nothing but praise for the film version. But I could, usually, take it or leave it. I know that makes me extremely unusual in the musical community, but there it is.

So my mouth wasn’t hanging open with eagerness when the curtain did come up, though neither were my arms crossed in looming judgment. In fact, I think I may have been in one of my more balanced states of mind (those of you who have read my reviews before know that this can be excessively rare).

But “Good Morning, Baltimore” started – a number I do like – and I was overwhelmed with a feeling of blandness. It wasn’t that it was bad. Like I said, the sets were fun, the costumes were good, I liked their use of hairspray – but I felt bored.

I’d like to take this point to talk about Tracy (Blythe Woodland). If anyone tells me I am being mean to this production, I want it on record that I will not say anyone was bad, because nobody was. What I am about to say about Ms. Woodland’s performance is not meant as a negative reflection on her, because I thought she was competent – but I could never quite shake the feeling she was also miscast, particularly whenever she was referred to as short and fat. I’m short. The only people I am taller than are my mother, little old ladies, and the kids in my camp. Ms. Woodland rivaled – indeed, outdid – most of the male cast members in the department of height. She also wasn’t really fat. I know this should really be a compliment, but I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Did she have a little excess weight? Yeah, sure, I guess. But I would balk at calling her anything more than “mildly to moderately” overweight, she was no butterball, and she was not unattractive (though I am going to keep coming back to Amber as my go-to girl for beauty. She was no twig, and she was gorgeous). Soooo…was she Tracy? She was a fine actress. She sang well. She danced….eh, I dunno. Most of the dancing didn’t particularly blow me away. I’d say the dancing I enjoyed the most sincerely and fully – really liked – was that done by the Corny Collins Show dancers, though there were other instances of perfectly fine dancing. It just didn’t blow me away like you might think a show about….you know, dancing, would. I’m no dancer, though, so she was fine.

So despite the fact that everyone was clearly working hard, there was a distressing lack of energy during the opening number. In fact, I didn’t really get a sense of electricity until the second act, which is not uncommon – but it isn’t going to score your production any points, either.

Again, favorite aspects – the Corny Collins cast. Link (Steven Bryan Dawson)…..was another one of those people that I had a REALLY hard time liking for a while. I could see why he was cast in the part, but something was just missing and remained missing until the second act, when I sincerely enjoyed all of his moments on stage and had a lot more fun with him. As a general rule, the whole second act was better than the first, which is unfortunate, being much shorter in length. Dan Murphy as Edna also needed a warm up. His first lines made it INTERMINABLY plain that he was a man in a lady’s costume, though that was not always the case.

Whom did I love? The people you’re not supposed to. Sara Catherine Wheatley as Velma Von Tussle has made a permanent fan in me. She was spunky, ballsy, talented, gorgeous and sang like no one else. She stole the show for me without question. “Miss Baltimore Crabs” was fantastic, as was its reprise. I wish it had been longer. She was considerably less villainous than I was expecting, but I loved her.

Also really enjoyed Alina Ziak as Amber. Appropriately spoiled, yet beautiful and talented. She had it going on. And this girl was hot stuff. I loved her every time she was onstage, she constantly made me laugh, may she go on to do amazing things and make other similarly heterosexual girls (and, uh, guys I guess) melt in adoration of her performance.

Corny Collins (Norman Wilson) – the level of handsome I expect of my Corny, but I’m pretty sure he was flaming. Hanna says that’s a good thing, but I found it distracting. But what the hell do I know, my gaydar is sucktastic anyway. John “Jay” Kelley Jr. – a good Seaweed. I can’t say a great Seaweed, but he was solidly good, and more often than not he was very good. Megan H. Carver as Penny had her moments for me, but was kinda hit or miss. I get the feeling she’s probably really good most of the time, and maybe there’s just some sort of production struggle going on for this. Full points to Ron Daum as Wilbur Turnblad, I wished he were my dad.

Okay, so that’s MOST of the supporting cast and I can cover more later. There were moments when I was definitely having a good time in the first act, but there were also moments I felt kind of bored. As I texted to both Hanna and Chris during intermission, my reaction was mainly one of “Eh;” It wasn’t bad, and some of it was good, but you could probably have a better time at home with the film version.

There were a few minutes when I considered that maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. “Hairspray” was, afterall, originally a film. There are ways of telling a story that uniquely work for film, and worked better for the movie musical version for its medium. I had the unsettled feeling, though, that there was no reason a stage production couldn’t be as good as the film it spawned, and Hanna helped me to root my feelings when he pointed out that in reality, a stage show should be better, and if this was not the case, then the production was not doing its job properly.

I’m not going to completely say that is the case. I get the feeling that maybe the cast wasn’t quite on its toes and needed time to warm up. But theater is a very demanding and fickle world. There are no re-takes. It takes energy from the very first moment, even when not onstage. It is, of course, not easy and I’m not saying I could do better – but then again, I wasn’t the one on stage, so it wasn’t my job to put out that constant flow of energy, exhausting or not. This, I think, is what kept the show from completely winning me over.

I’ve hit most of the big stuff, though some of my other complaints may just be with the book, which I felt was slightly stilted – but I can’t help but blame the delivery for a lot of that. A great actor can’t make a bad play good, but he can make it REALLY well performed. A bad actor, as I’ve been so unfortunate to witness, can turn Shakespeare to Michael Bay. This was in the middle. It added to a sense of drudgery for me. Something was just off; that sometimes happens in productions for no truly discernible reason, no matter what the talent and dedication of those involved. When it happens, it’s death.

Chorus? Great. Always a plus. Lacretta Nicole as Motormouth Maybelle? I get the feeling she’s a great actress, but most of the time her performance left me feeling annoyed, and I am dead certain it doesn’t have to be that way. But she delivered on “I Know Where I’ve Been” and God help your production if you don’t have that. Very stirring and moving, so I guess I can’t really complain.

I kind of have to stop for a second and say something about “color blind” casting. In a way, maybe it’s appropriate for this show, but clear “ethnic incongruities” kept pulling me out of complete belief in what was going on. For one, one of the Dynamite Girls was “Polynesian” looking as opposed to “black” looking, and judging by her name, I think I’m in the general ballpark area for her actual ethnicity…..is it racist if you use a dark-skinned Pacific islander as an African American? Or is it psychedelically un-racist. I think the jury is still out on that one. Also, another one of the “black” little girls (not, L’il Inez, she is going to grow up to be a bamf) was about as black as me, and that is one of the few ethnicities I have not been mistaken for yet. So take that as you will. Oh, and I think one of the “black” males was Hispanic. I am CERTAIN Portland does not lack truly African talent, so I don’t know what the issue here was. But, uh, anyway – I loved the Dynamite Girls, and I’d have been pissed off if I didn’t.

My last critique is one of the show itself – the encores felt long. I’m sure they’re meant to be used as transitions between scenes, and when used that way, I enjoyed them. But other times they felt like pure mugging of applause and time just dragged. So maybe that, too, is not the show and also a directorial choice.

So I guess here’s what it comes down to: did I have a good time? Sorta. There were times I was having a blast and truly enjoying myself. But I wasn’t all of the time, and I think that’s the key. If I could tell you to just go down and see the second act, I would, because that was what a production of “Hairspray” ought to be, but seeing as that is not feasible, I don’t know whether I recommend this or not. Given the price (free to me), I can’t say I lost out anything by seeing it. But I don’t know that I would wholeheartedly tell others to spend their money to see it as well.

This is something I never do, and that is recommending the film version over a live theatrical performance, but I’m going to make an exception here. Partly because the film was SO good, but I think mostly because this production wasn’t THAT good. I think it could be, I think with a little more “oomph” it could be fantastic. Maybe I caught them on an off day. But in the theater, an off day is a dead day, so any off-ness is inexcusable. Really, I have to leave this one up to your own personal judgment – to see, or not to.

To my aunt: Thank you SO much for a lovely time, because we always have a lovely time. I enjoyed going with you to the performance, and I also especially enjoyed our time in the little consignment shop and at Cafe Allegro! I send you love and hope to see you again tomorrow.

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About emilydnelson

A recent graduate of Hofstra University with a B.A. in anthropology, Emily is like every other twenty-two year old on the planet - trying to figure out what the hell to do now. Follow as she struggles with writing, her social work job, and bopping from coast to coast.
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One Response to The Only Thing Better Than Hairspray! – Lots of Stuff

  1. Pingback: It’s Our 100th Episode, YAY! | The Undiscovered Country

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