Saturday, February 11, 2012

Luke's Reviews: Hairspray

Regardless of the Christmas song, THIS is the most wonderful time of the year.  From late January to early May highschools all over the country are performing their "Spring Musicals" and I feel like a kid in a candy shop.  I usually make it a point to see four or five productions in these few short months (in addition to performing in as many as I can) and I kicked off the season Friday night when I went to see Pebblebrook Highschool's production of Hairspray.
The School
Now, I've loved Pebblebrook ever since I saw them in a concert back in 2009, then the following spring I saw my first production that they put on (Aida) and was absolutely blown away!  Ever since then I have tried to make an appearance to every musical that Pebblebrook puts on (this was my fourth).  Their shows always have decent acting and good singing, but their real strength lies in their choreography, and Hairspray was no different.

The Show
I have a secret...I don't actually like Hairspray.  I know that it's really popular and stuff, and it's not that bad, but I always thought it got way more hype than it deserves.  Some of the songs are kind of catchy, but it's not powerful enough to move me or funny enough to get me laughing out loud, so it's just average to me.  If you don't know the show, it's basically about minorities (obese people and African Americans) being confident and fighting to have the same opportunities as their pencil then, blond hair blue eyed peers.  Now, this general plot line (the tough life of the downtrodden minority) is not an uncommon one (you can see it in Ragtime, Parade, and even Shrek), but what sets it apart from the others is its a much more cheerful version of this potentially heartbreaking topic.  Almost all of the minorities are used to their oppression so they just smile and dance it off most of the time, so it keeps the show lighthearted.  I think this is why I don't like it too much, it remains very shallow throughout the whole show (beauty within and all that stuff).  But, storyline aside, the music is actually pretty good, especially when it comes to it's high energy ensemble numbers, so it's really good fit for a school like Pebblebrook (who's ensemble is honestly stronger than their soloists).

The Performance
The show was a wonderful experience.  Although I still don't love the show, imagining the Pebblebrook kids perform it in my mind will give the songs more meaning to me and I think they did make me like it a little more than I previously did.  What made the show experience even more enjoyable is the fantastic company I was in.  I was joined by my mother and sister (I got my kid sister hooked on Pebblebrook after Ragtime) and our friends Jennifer (who made the night with her inspiring quote: "I can act and sleep at the same time, I call it crunch week") and Tami Reece.  This was their first Pebblebrook show to see, but they too caught the fever and I imagine will be frequenting it with me for the next couple of years.  But enough about my wonderful company, onto the show!  First, the technical side:

  • The set was pretty minimal.  The Anderson Theater at the Cobb Civic Center (where they performed) has such a huge stage (great for Pebblebrook's high choreography shows) which they didn't clutter up with large bulky set pieces.  There was a backdrop of the city that came down when the characters were outdoors, and a few rooms that rolled on stage throughout the show (a living room, jail cell, clothing store etc.) but all in all it remained pretty minimalistic.  I think this was probably a good thing, because I have seen shows where the set crowded out the performance, but the designer of this set decided early on not to make the set flashy or distracting, so it was all pretty average, which is o.k.
  • The Costuming surprised me a little.  Mostly because (and forgive my being blunt but there's no good way to say this) Tracy was too skinny.  The show opens with her under a set of covers so we only get to see her face for the first 40 seconds or so.  This kind of builds suspense as if there's going to be some great reveal when she gets out, but she didn't look overweight at all.  I know that you can't expect every actress to play Tracy to be plump, but it's very common to use padding to give the right effect.  Now, as my fellow theatergoers pointed out to me, the entire cast was incredibly fit, so it's possible she did have padding, she's just really thin, but it still kind of took away.  It made it kind of awkward every time a joke was made about her weight (and there were several).  They did try to compensate for this by making her shorter than everyone else.  All of the other girls had stiletto heels and she was naturally shorter than most of the guys, so proportionally, she did look a bit stockier, but I would've appreciated a little more.  As for the rest of the costumes, they were pretty average.  Once again they didn't really stand out, but at least they didn't distract from the show.  But the great triumph of the costume designer was the costumes for Mrs. Turnblad.  That was done perfectly (If you know the show you know why that's a hard role to costume).
  • The Staging
  • Kelsey B. (Tracy) - She was pretty fantastic.  I'm not going to lie, this girl nailed every note of the entire show.  I was a bit biased against her from the beginning (because of the costume discrepancy), so I was almost looking for her to make a mistake, but she didn't.  She sang every note of the show and never even seemed strained.  She effortlessly danced through the entire show so in character that I really did forget what I was watching some times.  Unfortunately, she was the main character.  This means that although she was arguably the best out there, it was expected, so she wasn't (for me) the most memorable.  But this isn't her fault, she really was pitch perfect the entire show..with one possible exception.  There was a point in the show where she had to take a fall (something that I personally take very seriously), this was done horribly.  I'm pretty sure that was done on purpose (because the strike that smote her was ridiculously horrible as well), so I think the idea was to make it seem really fake, but I would've liked to see some bruised skin...but that's just me.  For all intents and purposes, she didn't steal the show, but she didn't make a single mistake either.
  • Hamilton M. (Link) - So this is the third performance I've had the pleasure of seeing Hamilton perform including his role as Tateh,my favorite character, in Ragtime last May.  And like every actor I've seen play Mark in RENT, he wasn't bad, but I had idealized the character so much that he didn't seem to live up the challenge.  Since then I've seen him in "The Heat Is On" (a vocal and dance concert), in which he regained my favor, so I was very excited to see him in a character I was less attached to.  He didn't disappoint.  I felt like he was more comfortable as Link than he was as Tateh and his talent really shined.  His singing was also spot on and he really did get into the character.  Occasionally he would get distracted by something and drop character for a second, but this was very seldom, and never when he was in the spotlight.  All in all he did a good job, but had (to me) a rather boring character, so he didn't stand out too much.  As with his romantic counterpart: no mistake, but nothing spectacular.
  • George V. (Seaweed) - As the music for Run and Tell That (Seaweed's big number) began to play, I heard the patron behind us perk up saying "here we go".  Most fans of the show felt the same way.  With exception of the finale, this song is the most loved in the show, and therefore, a lot of pressure is placed on the actor playing Seaweed.  From the very beginning he needs to be exhumed in his character because fans of the show know to watch him from the beginning.  Part of me wonders if this pressure was a bit too much for George (as it would be for almost anyone).  He did seem (especially in Run and Tell That) to play it smaller than he conceivably could have.  He was really great, but I feel like he wasn't able to get completely into it, likely because he was a bit afraid (and no one can blame him).  It's possible this nervousness is what caused him to slur his words a bit and made it a bit difficult to understand what he was singing at times.  Now, this didn't prove to be a big issue, because, as I said, the majority of the audience already knew his songs and were waiting for them, but a bit more diction might have been nice.  This is me being very VERY picky.  I only wish I could perform as well as this young man did, but in order to remain credible I need to point out the good and the bad.  But in case this segment doesn't accurately display this, know that the good far out weighed the bad in the case of George V.
  • Nicholas M. (Corny Collins) - Nicholas is another example of improvement.  I saw him in Ragtime also, and he seemed very small, keeping his character a bit one dimensional.  But he really shined as Corny Collins.  He kept the cheesy air about him all the time and never broke character for a second.  He did play the character a bit smaller than he maybe could have, but I accredit that more to the blocking and choreography than to the actor (he was confined to a corner of the stage for a good portion of it).  He was one of my favorite characters, and always perked me up as soon as he came on stage.  Go Nicholas!
  • Dana M. (Velma Von Tussle) - Dana had her work cut out for her.  She had (by far) my least favorite character in the show and sang most of my least favorite songs (and reprised it over and over again).  This means that I don't have too many positive memories associated with her performance, but that isn't her fault.  When I put my bias aside and think about her actual performance, she actually did really well.  She didn't have to dance (unlike pretty much everyone else), so there's really not much to judge her by except for her voice, which was actually really good.  No complaints.
  • Alexander S. (Wilbur Turnblad) - What is there to say about Alexander?  When I saw the movie I wasn't a big fan of his character (Christopher Walken wasn't much of a singer, and is kind of creepy). So I really wasn't expecting anything from this character.  I was pleasantly surprised.  From the moment he entered the stage, Alex's (you mind if I call you Alex?) character just picked up any scene it was in.  He was full of energy and everything from his accent to his physicality was spot on.  When it came time for his song with the lovely Mrs. Turnblad, Although his singing voice didn't knock me out of my seat, it was a very solid performance and allowed him continue acting beautifully throughout the song.  He was brilliantly cast and did a phenomenal job.  Although the part was small, it was the one I was looking for in every scene. Congratulations Alex!
  • Nora S. (Motormouth Mabel) - Now, Nora has been in every Pebblebrook show I've seen (I think she's the only one I can say that about), which means that she was good enough to get good parts even when she was a Sophomore.  And let me tell you, she really did steal the show at Hairspray.  She had a nice little solo in Aida (2010), had a nice comic touch in Fame (2010), really helped to bring the emotion to Ragtime (2011), but really stole the show here in Hairspray!  Now her character doesn't even appear until the first act is almost done, but after that she makes her presence known with charisma and a "blow you out of the water" kind of singing voice.  The highlight of the show (vocal wise at least) was by far her performance in I Know Where I've Been.  At the last note (which she held out strong for a good 20 seconds or so), she received a well deserved applause and even a standing ovation from some.  And although she didn't get another note that big in the rest of the show, from then on the whole audience seemed to regard her with expectancy and awe ready to adore anything that came out of her mouth.  Since it looks like she's finally a senior, this might be the last time I see her in a pebblebrook show, but I wouldn't be surprised if she grows up to be the next Audra McDonnald.
  • Mitchell H. (Edna Turnblad) - I saved Mitchell for last, because I think I left the theater with the most respect for him.  He, probably more than the rest of the cast, had a lot of pressure in doing this part.  His character has been played by such icons as John Travolta, and Harvey Fierstein, and, if done wrong, looks corny, insensitive, and even sexist.  However, Mitchell was absolutely splendid in his role. His voice was excellent, he did a fantastic job of singing in character (harder than it sounds), and everything about him just exhumed the character.  As an actor, I also know the struggles he likely went through along this journey.  I'm sure he got teased about the role for a few weeks after casting, I'm sure that practically every number he rehearsed out of costume was insanely awkward, and I'm sure there were plenty of snickers and giggles when everyone first saw him in his costume.  But despite all of this, he delivered a truly fantastic rendition of Mrs. Turnblad and made me personally respect him as an actor.
  • The Ensemble - Like most Pebblebrook shows, they're really who make the show great.  As a unit, their dancing was spectacular, their singing was top notch, the acting of minor roles (specific shout out to Maddie Martin as Matron, Matthew Boyd as Sketch, and Taylor Eubanks as Penny) was fantastic, and their vocal conditioning was astounding!  They say that a cast is only as strong as it's weakest member, and if that is true, then Pebblebrook has one of the strongest casts out there.
In closing, I would implore all of my readers (all two of you) to make it a point to support your local highschools theatrical productions this year.  I personally already have 3-4 more highschool performances to attend before the semester is over, and I would suggest you do the same.  If you would like a list of some of the top theater programs in GA, then I'd suggest you look at .  Or, if there's a specific show you're waiting to see, chances are you can find a list of it's performances nation wide at .  And, in reference to my first link, This show was entered into the Shuler Hensley Awards where it will undoubtedly win Best Choreography (It has one every single year the awards have existed) and hopefully much more.  Look for that post sometime in May or early June.  And be sure to vote on the poll to the top right of this (I always get a kick out of your opinions).  Thanks for reading!

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