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“HAIRSPRAY:” YOU CAN’T STOP THE BALTIMORE BEAT
BY BONNIE GOLDBERG  7/12/12

Tracy Turnblad is a chunky teenager who loves to dance like other sixteen year olds.  But in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962, her big-sized hair and bigger-sized heart are on a mission:  to integrate The Corny Collins TV Dance Show so whites and blacks can bogey and bop on the same stage.

Ivoryton Playhouse is igniting one super duper special production of “Hairspray The Broadway Musical” with book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meechan, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman until Sunday, July 29.  This sparkly, bright musical will grab your dance card and fill it to the brim with energy and verve, promoting the importance of family, friends and community.

Jill Sullivan’s Tracy is bubbly and effervescent as she tries out for a coveted spot on Corny Collins’ show, taking her best bud Penny (Abby Hart) along for moral support, and the encouragement of her father, a neat Neal Mayer and, a little more reluctantly, her mom Edna, brought to brilliance in the hands and hips of a larger-than-life Michael Barra.

Barra, whose parents live in Middletown, has been having quite a sweep of good luck as he was recently on the red carpet promoting his role in the new movie “The Amazing Spider-Man” where he plays a shop clerk, T-Bone.

While Tracy does not set out to win the title of Miss Hair Spray 1962, a contest sought polished tooth and nail by Amber Von Tussle (Bethany Fitzgerald) with the steamroller help of her mom Velma (Tara Michelle Gesling), she does have her eye on the teenage heart throb Link Larkin, a bodacious Justin Gerhard.

Everyone has a lot at stake when Tracy fights the system to make everyday Negro day on the dance show.  In the process, she goes to jail, her dad risks the mortgage on his Har de Har Hut, a magic shop, while her mom confesses she always wanted to design dresses for queen-size ladies rather than take in other people’s laundry.

Tracy’s school chum Seaweed (Gregory Lawrence Gardner) introduces her to his dynamic mom Motormouth Maybelle, fiery in the vocal cords of Karen Anderson, to help the cause of equality.  A willing Corny Collins (Sam Schrader), a versatile R. Bruce Connelly as everyone from principal to police guard to hair spray sponsor to clothing line leader and an authoritative and take-charge Melissa McLean as Penny’s mom, the gym teacher and the prison warden.

The show opens with a lively “Good Morning, Baltimore,” goes on to feature a trio of mothers and daughters belting out “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” does a sweet ballad of “I Can Hear the Bells” when Tracy meets Link, sashays into a cozy duet by Wilbur and Edna “You’re Timeless to Me” and ends on the bouncy rhythms of “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” with a lot of great tunes packed in between.

 Jacqueline Hubbard directs an enthusiastic cast with skill, on a colorful and clever set designed by Cully Long, with a kaleidoscope of costumes by Vivianna Lamb.

For tickets ($40, seniors $35, students $20, children $15), call the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton at 860-767-7318 or online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.  Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees are Wednesday and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Do the fish, the pony or the monkey as you dance your way down the aisle of the Ivoryton Playhouse to cheer Tracy on as she leads a conga line to make all her dreams come true.

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WMNR  88.1FM FINE ARTS PUBLIC RADIO
THEATER CIRCUIT                       
HAIRSPRAY AT THE IVORYTON PLAYHOUSE
DIRECTED BY JACQUI HUBBARD
BY ROSALIND FRIEDMAN         
BROADCAST: 7/16-29/12 3 min.

There’ a hot time in the Ivoryton Playhouse, right now, which is outdoing itself with a razzle-dazzle production of Hairspray.   This high-energy musical, written by Mark O’Donnell, Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman, is based on the outrageous 1988 film written and directed by John Waters.  It won all the awards on Broadway and in London in 2003, and it will certainly be a contender for Connecticut Critic Circle awards come next June.

Ivoryton’s Executive/Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard has put together a pluperfect cast of 24, costumed wildly by Vivianna Lamb, directing them with panache.  It is no wonder that she could not pick up her Tom Killen award for Outstanding Contribution to Ct Theatre at the recent awards ceremonies at the Mark Twain House in Hartford; she was rehearsing!  Assisting her in this grand effort are Musical Director John Sebastian DeNicola and Choreographer and Assistant Director JRBruno. Scenic Designer Cully Long has used every inch of the small space lit by Marcus Abbott to create the essence of Baltimore in the 1960’s and the turmoil the world was in at that time.  On one side of the stage is a tall frame which shows hundreds of videos –at times this is too busy and distracting- conflicting with the action on stage- at others, particularly when it is showing the struggle for integration, i.e. the Klu Klux Klan and Martin Luther King, it is emotionally effective.
 
The premise of Hairspray centers around Tracy Turnblad, a chubby teenager with a big dream: to appear on the Corny Collins rock and roll TV show, to win a dance contest, to capture the heart of handsome Link Larkin, and  to integrate the show.  Jill Sullivan, not yet a member of Actors Equity,  sings and dances well, giving her all to the role of Tracy, a student with teased hair and always in trouble; she makes us care about her, her family and her plight.  Michael Barra is a marvelous Edna, Tracy’s enormous stay-at- home mom, who finds a new life.  Neal Mayer is a reliable Wilbur, Tracy’s sympathetic father.  Abby Hart is a skinny wiggly Penny Pingelton, Tracy’s best friend, who is hog-tied by a repressive mom, Prudy, played with spirit by Melissa McLean. Gregory Lawrence Gardner as Seaweed J. Stubbs, an African/ American high school student is a standout. Justin Gerhard is a very attractive love-interest Link; does anyone remember the original part was played by Matthew Morrison, now the star of TV’s “Glee.”  Sam Schrader keeps  things moving as Corny Collins.

But it is Karen Anderson, beautiful  as Motormouth Maybelle, who, in two numbers,   “Big, Blonde and Beautiful,” and  “I Know Where I’ve  Been,” brings down the house and raises the level   of Hairspray.   She reminds us of the late, great, Eartha Kitt.
 
From “GOOD MORNING BALTIMORE” to “ YOU CAN’T STOP THE BEAT,” Hairspray is a delight. Playing now through July 29 in Ivoryton.

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By Geary Danihy
For CT Theater News and Reviews.

 “Hairspray,” which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, is about transformation. A young girl, size-challenged, transforms into a TV star and a firebrand. A mother, equally size-challenged and house-bound, blossoms. And a society, shackled by de facto and de jure segregation, begins to shrug off its chains — all accomplished to the pulsing beat of rock and roll music circa 1962. Under the direction of Jacqueline Hubbard, this bouncy, breezy, message-laden musical, with book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, is an audience pleaser that, however, in this case, seems somewhat smaller than it should be, even though it boasts one of the largest casts ever to grace Ivoryton’s diminutive stage.

Based on the John Waters indie film of the same name, the musical focuses on the Turnblad family: Tracy (Jill Sullivan) the daughter whose biggest dream is to be a regular on the Corny Collins (Sam Schrader) show (think “Bandstand” in a B-market, i.e., Baltimore); Edna (Michael Barra), the agoraphobic, oversized Mom; and Wilbur (Neal Mayer), the understanding Dad who owns a magic shop.

Tracy’s quest to get on the teen TV show, and to win the heart of its leading heartthrob Link Larkin (Justin Gerhard), soon morphs, for no apparent reason other than plot necessity, into a desire to integrate the dance show, much to the consternation of the show’s producer, Velma Von Tussle (Tara Michelle Gesling) and her “regular on the show” daughter, Amber (Bethany Fitzgerald), who thinks she has Link wrapped around her crooked little finger. Tracy’s efforts lead her to ‘the other side of town,” where she meets Motormouth Maybelle (Karen Anderson), the host of the “Negro Day” segment of the Corny Collins Show, and her son, Seaweed J. Stubbs, who is attracted to Tracy’s best friend, Penny (Abby Hart), a young lady under the repressive thumb of her mother, Prudy (Melissa McLean). Initial integrative efforts lead to mass arrests, but through subterfuge Tracy gets to compete in and win the Miss Teenage Hairspray contest, as well as Link’s heart, and successfully integrate the dance show.

Ivoryton’s production has many fine moments and many fine performances, but there are certain scenes that should take off and soar but don’t, and it’s difficult to understand why. This becomes apparent from the opening number, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” a bouncy paean to the city and the sheer joy of being alive. There should be throbbing elation here, but this seems somehow sadly lacking, perhaps because Sullivan’s vocal range simply isn’t up to the task. Her voice, pleasant enough, seems unable to “sell” a song. “Good Morning…” is a belter’s number, and Sullivan is not a belter. She’s energetic and nimble, as is evident in her many dance numbers, but she just can’t seem to translate this physical exuberance into vocal exuberance.

The ensemble backing up Sullivan in this opening number also seems somewhat muted, surprising given the size of the theater and the number of actors on stage, but this “muting” occurs in several other ensemble numbers, which leads one to question the sound design – there’s no accreditation in the program for sound – perhaps that is the problem. In any event, the sound is very uneven. At times the actors seem overly harsh and sharp and at other times strangely blurred. Sound is a subtle thing in a musical production – it succeeds best when it doesn’t call attention to itself. In the case of “Hairspray,” it calls attention to itself on a regular basis.

Staying with “calling attention to itself” for a moment, scenic designer Cully Long, whose major work here is extremely fluid, effective and period suggestive, has also given us a projection screen stage left (if, in fact, this was his decision), that presents a constant flow of period images that relate to the dialogue and songs being sung. It’s totally superfluous and distracting – you have actors doing their “stuff” and a constant flow of images stage left – why would anyone want to draw attention away from what is occurring on the stage?
 
Yes, there are problems, but they are outweighed by the many positives this production offers, chief among them Edna, which has traditionally been played by a man. Barra’s Edna is, quite simply, a fine piece of work. He doesn’t overwork the conceit but rather allows the fact that he is a man to subtly underscore both dialogue and song, no more so than in the absolutely delightful “You’re Timeless to Me,” a duet with her husband – Mayer doesn’t miss a beat throughout the entire evening — that is, dare I use the word, adorable. These are two pros working the moment for all it’s worth, and the result is a theatrical treat that harkens back to cherished vaudeville routines.

Another plus is the work of choreographer JR Bruno, who uses the Playhouse’s limited space to great effect – both the stage and the orchestra aisles — and creates some numbers – especially “The Big Dollhouse” and the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” – that please on a number of levels: movement that is visually balanced, enhances the plot, and is emotionally satisfying.
 
Four other performances stand out, and make the show well worth the price of admission. The first is Gesling’s Velma – she is arch and bitchy, creates the woman you love to hate, and totally entrances in “Miss Baltimore Crab.” Then there’s Anderson as Motormouth – she looks like Eartha Kitt and sings like Queen Latifa – and her two featured numbers, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and “I Know Where I’ve Been” – are show stoppers. The third performance worthy of mention is McLean’s, who not only plays Penny’s mom, but a butch gym teacher (girls get extra credit if they take a shower) and a prison matron, and it is as the matron that she really shines in “The Big Dollhouse” number.
 
Finally, the best for last: Abby Hart as Penny Pingleton, the socially challenged best friend of Tracy. As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t keep my eyes off her (I suspect director Hubbard had something to do with this, sensing she had a goldmine here) as Hart projects an awkward young lass who is just a beat off in the dances (intentionally), uses her fluttering fingers to express her awkwardness, and delivers her lines with a delightful naïveté. It is her transformation in the final scene – from an awkward naïf to a beautiful young woman (which she is) – that is, surprisingly, the most satisfying transformation of all.
 
“Hairspray” is a big production for Ivoryton to take on, and by and large, the century-old theater succeeds. The house, packed at the performance I attended, just lapped it up, as well it should. This is quality musical theater. Yes, there are problems, but they don’t get in the way of enjoying a robust, vibrant and engaging two-and-a-half hours that prove that “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
 
“Hairspray” runs through July 29. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.
 For CT Theater News and Reviews.

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