Sunday, September 11, 2011

Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy

Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy
By Tom Wachunas

Who? Hairspray. A musical based on the 1988 film written and directed by John Waters, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. A 2002-2009, multiple Tony Award winner on Broadway with a run of 2,500 packed shows. And a film remake in 2007.

The current live production playing on the mainstage of the Players Guild Theatre in Canton makes the 1988 film look like a wilted, miscast practice run.

Director Craig Joseph once again brings his Midas touch to the Guild proceedings, made all the more golden by Michael Lawrence Akers’ sharp, electrifying choreography and Steve Parsons’ masterful direction of a muscular, airtight 11-piece orchestra. Throw in a generous dose of inventive scenic design by Craig Betz, along with lavish, eye-popping costumes by Susie Smith with Cristine Patrick. Then add an astonishingly buoyant 34-member cast of unassailable talent that sings and dances with indefatigable energy, bolstered by the crisp, lush harmonies from a six-member vocal ensemble (singing offstage). Now you’ve got all the tasty ingredients for a show - already spiced up with sizzling-hot songs - that is nothing short of pure, undiluted brio incarnate.

The story is a Cinderella derivative of sorts, with a sociopolitical message. Set in 1962 Baltimore, it’s built around Tracy Turnblad, a vivacious, plump, white teen who dreams of romance, dancing on her favorite TV show, acceptance from her peers, and overcoming racial divide. From the inspiring, animated opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” to the second act’s Dionysian dance marathon in the climactic “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” there’s not a lackluster minute that goes by in this raucous collision between giddy 1960s pop schmaltz and genuine pathos.

And it all starts with the wide-eyed, disarming optimism and sheer lovability of Chelsea Boyd, who plays Tracy with palpable, lithe grace and savvy vocal effervescence. Tosca Rolf is absolutely endearing and daffy in her role of Tracy’s best friend, Penny. Equally loveable and funny is Adam J. Ford, who plays Edna, Tracy’s agoraphobic, very plus-sized mother. “I’m a simple housewife of indeterminate girth,” Edna/Ford purrs at one point, with convincing self-deprecation. Despite the sheer bulk of his fat suit, Ford carries his towering, infectiously comedic self with seemingly impossible delicacy and even a regal elegance. J. Scotland Gallo brings a vaudevillian charm and truly authentic affection for Edna to his portrayal of Wilbur, the Turnblad patriarch who owns the Hardy-Har Hut novelty shop. “My parents begged me to run away to the circus,” he glibly tells Tracy in support of her dreams. Ford and Gallo provide one of the evening’s most memorably tender (yet hilarious) passages as they sing “You’re Timeless To Me.”

Teresa Houston turns in a deliciously vampiric reading of her mean-spirited character, Velma Von Tussle, the bigoted producer of the wildly popular Corny Collins Show (a weekly teen dance-fest sponsored by Ultra Clutch Hairspray). Jay Oldaker seems born to the role of Corny Collins - yes, indeed a corny but likeable hybrid of Frankie Avalon and Dick Clark. Amanda Medley nails the manipulative, self-possessed and hurtful character of Velmas’s daughter, Amber, with real relish. Her would-be boyfriend, Link (who is ultimately won over by Tracy’s sincerity and passion), is a dapper young crooner played by Grant Cole, who captures his character’s narcissistic suavity - and his honest heart - with remarkable sensitivity. Kathy Boyd (no relation to Chelsea) plays Motormouth Maybelle, a mentoring ally in Tracy’s efforts to integrate The Corny Collins Show. With all the heated fervor of an impassioned gospel singer, she provides one of the evenings’s several show-stoppers with her inspired rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Beyond the skillfully clear and soaring vocal performances, what keeps the production churning at an exhilarating pace is the dancing. That’s understandable enough, considering that this is, among other things, a show about a dancing show. And in that, the cast delivers with consistent, Motown-flavored panache.

With this opening show of its 80th Anniversary season, The Players Guild has surely raised the bar for (and perhaps redefined) professionalism in Canton-area community theatre. I’m fresh out of superlatives. This production is the real deal.

Photo by James Dreussi. HAIRSPRAY, at the Canton Players Guild Theatre, in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton. Shows, through October 2, at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30pm Sundays. Tickets are $23 for adults, $18 ages 17 and younger. Available at or by calling (330) 453-7617.

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