Reviewed by George Basler
The cold-weather blues got you down? The pre-Christmas blitz got you frazzled? Thoughts of a fiscal cliff bumming you out?
Take time out to head to the Watters Theater at Binghamton University’s Anderson Center for 2 1/2 hours of pure, unadulterated fun that will have you dancing in your seats at the end of the show.
The occasion is BU’s rollicking production of the musical Hairspray, which recreates the spirit of an old-fashioned Broadway musical comedy without seeming old-fashioned in any way.
The show is a buoyant time capsule of the days when rock ‘n’ roll was young, television was black and white and the highest praise for any song was that “it has a good beat and you can dance to it.”
Hairspray, which runs through the weekend of Dec. 7-9, represented a big challenge for the BU Theater Department. The musical has been a hit on Broadway, and all over the world, and was a successful movie musical just a few years ago. So a lot of comparisons can be made. More than that, the production is a large one with 24 musical and dance numbers, a cast of 25, three offstage ensemble members and more than a dozen people behind the scenes.
So it’s high praise to say that the Binghamton production doesn’t suffer by comparison. Director Anne Brady, musical director Kristina Ruffo and choreographer JoEllen Kuhlman deserve tremendous credit for leading a talented group of students through first-rate dancing, singing and comic acting. Hairspray, to be successful, has to be a high-energy show, and BU’s production more than delivers.
The musical is based on a 1988 film by John Waters, a filmmaker known for his outrageous and eccentric stories that could slip into vulgarity and bad taste. The musical eliminates the bad taste, but thankfully keeps the eccentricity.
At the center of the show is Tracy Turnblad, a “pleasantly plump” teenager who longs for fame by dancing on The Corny Collins Show (with Erik Young as Collins) and pines for Link Larkin (Rob Tendy), a teen heartthrob on the show. In the process, Tracy, and scatterbrained friend Penny Pingleton, (played with sweetness and goofiness by Christine Scherer) become friends with African-American teens from the “Negro side of town” and end up integrating the show. Along the way Penny falls for Seaweed Stubbs (Rudy Bamenga), much to the dismay of her mother (Samantha Eriksen). They and Tracy have to confront the nasty mother/daughter duo of Velma and Amber Von Tussle (Stephanie Naru and Betty Czitrom).
As goofy as the plot sounds, it’s based on actual events in Baltimore, Md. in the late 1950s and 1960s, and The Buddy Dean Show, a local version of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand that Waters grew up watching.
In the role of Tracy, Michelle Goldrich, who is doing her first show at BU, is nothing less than sensational. She has talent as big as her hair and makes her character someone you root for from the time she steps onto the stage to the final rousing musical number.
The second signature role is Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s king-sized mother. Edna traditionally has been a drag role — that is, played by a man. Divine played the role in the original movie. Harvey Fierstein originated the role on Broadway, and John Travolta played Edna in the movie musical.
So Matt Gaska, a BU theater student, has big brassieres to fill. He’s up to the challenge, giving a thoroughly funny performance while keeping Edna a real person, not a campy stereotype. In fact, Gaska and Andrew Bryce, who gives a fine performance as Wilbur, Edna’s slightly goofy husband, perform one of the highlights of the show, “You’re Timeless to Me.” The duet is funny and kind of touching in an off-beat way, and brought the house down opening night.
Another show-stopping number is “I Know Where I’ve Been,” performed by Shanice Hodge as Motormouth Maybelle. By all rights, the ballad shouldn’t work. The song’s serious tone about racial struggle is out of place with the frothy tone of the show. According to Marc Shaiman, who wrote the music (Scott Wittman and Shaiman did the lyrics), the song was controversial, with some urging it be dropped because the number was “too preachy.” In the hands of the BU cast, though, the song is a smashing success as a tribute to struggle and resiliency.
To work as a show, though, Hairspray, can’t just depend on the stars. The musical is an ensemble show. The good news is that the BU cast is uniformly first-rate. From the leads to the minor roles, the performances are excellent. One example, although it’s far from the only one, is Sarah Lees as the gym teacher and jail matron. It’s a small part, almost a throwaway, but Lees is a scream. Small details like that add up to successful show.
What makes Hairspray resonant — besides the fact that it is so darn much fun — is its celebration of individuality and its message of how we’re all in this together regardless of race, color, religion and size. The message is a simple one — critics might say simplistic — but it can’t be emphasized enough.
While the show deals with racial prejudice, I couldn’t help but think about the issue of school bullying, which is very much in the news these days. Middle school and high school can be hard, cold places for kids who feel different and feel like they don’t fit in. Hairspray says celebrate your uniqueness, and go for it because you’re not alone. Tracy Turnblad is definitely different in a big, big way. But she revels in it. She’s a role model for “big girls” everywhere.
Hairspray is being performed at 8 p.m. today (Dec. 1), Dec. 7 and 8 and at 2 p.m. on Dec. 9. Tickets are $18 ($16 for faculty, staff and seniors; $10 for students). Call 777-ARTS (2787) or visit anderson.binghamton.edu.