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By Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

During this year’s televised Tony Awards, one of the ‘firsts’ in the history of the ceremonies was the exciting live feed of “Hairspray” from the largest cruise ship in the world, RCCL’s Oasis of the Seas. It is performed onboard twice a week. If cruising isn’t possible for you at the moment, cruise down to the Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut for its Broadway-sized production.

The bubbly, bouncy, buoyant and effervescent musical “Hairspray,” is now playing through July 29 with its still relevant subtext: you can’t stop the beat of love, acceptance and tolerance.

John Water’s first mainstream hit film, released in 1988, drove intolerant conservative types mad, and sent forward-thinking folks flocking to movie houses to see the cult figure Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) in the role of Edna Turnblad. Mark Shaiman who wrote the score for the musical Hairspray (2002) wanted to continue the tradition of casting a male as Edna. Ivoryton’s production does not disappoint, with Michael Barra stepping into the giant mu-mu and fluffy slippers of Tracy Turnblad’s hard-working, brash-but-loving mom. Michael’s Edna is light on her feet and right on the beat.

Big girl Tracy is sympathetically played by Jill Sullivan, whose big voice opens the show as she starts her day singing “Good Morning, Baltimore,” and is then joined by the entire company. Tracy is obsessed with The Corny Collins Show (read American Bandstand wannabee). She’s in teeny-bopper love with the show’s dancing heartthrob, Link Larkin (Justin Gerhard). Tracy auditions for the show, but is rejected by producer Velma Von Tussle (Tara Michelle Gesling) because of her ample girth. When she finally meets Link, the anthem “I Can Hear The Bells” rings out. and the large cast becomes an energized force of nature.

Later, Tracey shows off some dance moves taught to her by new found ‘Negro Day’ friends, and Corny Collins is so impressed that he gives her a place on the show. Tracey is soon launched to Baltimore stardom, but is appalled that the show is not integrated, and helps organize protests and marches to do just that.

Joining Tracy in her quest for justice is her best friend forever, Penny Pingleton, brilliantly played by Abby Hart. Abby’s Penny is deliciously doofy, and she elicits lots of laughs with her ‘doesn’t have a clue’ portrayal.

The songs in the show are reminiscent of many of the girl group hits of the ‘60’s. Three terrific singers, called The Dynamites (Kimberly Morgan, Shereen Macklin, and Alana Cauthen), give that ‘supreme’ style to the songs “Good Morning, Baltimore” “I Can Hear The Bells,” “Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now”, and ‘Welcome to the 60’s.” Their integration into the fabric of the musical numbers gives the show pace, style, and great vocal power.

Although we found the entire cast to be terrific, two great voices need to be singled-out: Kristen N Dowtin as Little Inez (“Run and Tell That”) and Karen Anderson as Motormouth Maybelle when she shook the rafters and got cheers for “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

Big rounds of applause also go to R. Bruce Connelly, playing multiple roles, who was equally at home in his wigs and loud jackets. Neal Meyer as Tracy’s dad, Wilbur Turnblad, owner of the Har Har Hut, let loose with his song-and-dance aplomb in his duet with Edna, “You’re Timeless To Me.” This soft-shoe style number illustrated the ‘opposites attract’ love between Mr. and Mrs. Turnblad.

There were some technical difficulties with sound when we saw the performance. Justin Gerhard as Link has a fine voice, bud he could hardly be heard because of the sound engineering, and was totally drowned out in his duets with Tracy. Gregory Lawrence Gardner as Seaweed had a mike that worked just fine! We’re hoping that these glitches have been resolved.

Cully Long’s imaginative set, Viviana Lamb’s costumes, and Joel Silvestro’s helmet-hat hair designs beautifully interpreted the 60’s vibe. With a little work on the sound, and reparation of some of the lighting cues, the technical aspects of the show will not distract from the talented actors onstage.

This cast, choreographed by JR Bruno and masterfully directed by Jacqueline Hubbard, moved beautifully and surprisingly well on the small Ivoryton stage – especially in the big numbers when all of the two dozen actor/singer/dancers appeared at the same time! We only found two songs – “Hairspray” and “Cooties” to be lackluster. (No faulting the director or cast, the songs are just not up to par with the rest of Mark Shaiman’s great score).

The grand finale, “You Can’t Stop The Beat” had the cast and the audience dancing in the aisles! The eight hidden musicians, well conducted by John S. DeNicola, worked in beautiful unison to deliver “…The Beat.” The fact that this show won eight 2003 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, is undeniable. As The New York Times says, “If life were everything it should be, it would be more like Hairspray. It’s irresistible!” We can say the same for Jacqui Hubbard’s full-scale high-budget production at the Ivoryton Playhouse. Welcome to the tuneful 60’s!

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