By Andrea Johnson
My husband and I have attended various events at The Grand Theater, and it was fun to return to see The Grand Theater’s production of Hairspray. Full Disclosure: I was an assistant director for Hairspray, and I have seen the production additionally in a couple of different venues, including the film versions. I love this show, and I love to see it done well.
Hairspray is a coming-of-age musical set in the early 1960s in Baltimore, Maryland, and revolves around the life and dreams of Tracy Turnblad, a teenager with a hair bump almost as big as her dreams of singing and dancing on a local TV studios teen dance show. The pursuit of her dreams is not a smooth one, and along the way she encounters the fears of her mother, the ridicule of the reigning teen dance queen, and lots and lots of prejudice and bigotry. Tracy faces down all of them with the support of her parents, her best friend, and all of the people who are drawn to Tracy because of her passion for equality and her desire to just be recognized for the talents she possesses, despite her presumed physical constraints. She makes many friends and gains many allies on her journey, giving that same support in return to them.
Hairspray began as a non-musical film produced in 1988 with Ricky Lake as Tracy Turnblad, but was then reworked in a musical form in 2002, produced on Broadway, and garnered 8 Tony Awards along the way. It was then redone in the musical form as a film with John Travolta starring in the traditionally male role of Tracy’s ample mother, Edna Turnblad, and Christopher Walken as Tracy’s fun-loving father, Wilbur Turnblad.
As my husband and I arrived for the show Friday evening, we found plenty of close and free parking on the east side of the theater. The east entrance of the theater is very clean, light and modern, and signs direct you around to the west side of the Salt Lake Community College building to the theater box office and lobby of the theater, which is definitely of an earlier era. Our seats were near the front and, by the familiarity and conversations of the patrons around us, right in the middle of the season ticket holders. There really isn’t a bad seat in the house. The theater itself is large and open, complete with a balcony and a breathtaking proscenium. The seats are comfortable and appropriately spaced. The contrast of the old and the new was definitely felt as the show started. The non-profit semi-professional theater group is funded by generous donations, and has used these donations to create a technologically advanced theater experience housed in a beautiful old setting.
The show opens with “Good Morning, Baltimore,” with Tracy waking up and starting a new day. Tracy, played effortlessly by Emily Woods, sings through the town on her way to school. Ms. Woods has a lovely vocal quality, clear, pure, and easy on the ears. Her characterization was on point from the start and never wavered. It was a delight watching her journey.
Next, we meet Tracy’s mom, played exquisitely by David Hanson (this role is typically played by a male with a large stage presence), and discover quickly Edna’s sharp wit as well as her crippling fears and self-deprecating issues. Mr. Hanson chose to keep his natural voice for Edna, avoiding affectation, which I enjoyed greatly. Later scene, we meet Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s dad and proprietor of his own gag gift and whoopee cushion emporium, played by Stephen Sherman. Wilbur and Edna have a particularly loving and tender relationship, but I missed it early on. We are asked to suspend reality in accepting that Edna is actually a woman, and I would have liked to see more interplay between Wilbur and Edna early on, and that needed to be initiated by Wilbur. Later, we were able to see the full manifestation of their relationship in a charming performance of “You’re Timeless to Me,” but it just made me wish that the repartee had been there sooner. I would have really enjoyed that expression of affection and gentle teasing earlier.
Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton, was played by Elise Groves Pearce. As is the nature of the beast of playing younger than your years, I felt that Ms. Pearce’s character read a little too mature. I would have really liked to see more immaturity and naivety early on, so that I could enjoy her journey as well. In the later scenes, especially as she interacts with Seaweed (the boy that makes her heart skip a beat) the move from naivety to knowing would have been more pronounced. I felt like I didn’t get to see her evolve. Conversely, Seaweed, played by Tristan Johnson, was almost too shy and uncomfortable in the early parts of the show, where I would have liked to see more confidence, but he managed to find his groove by later scenes. I am not sure if this was a character choice, or just a nerves issue, but either way, “Without Love” in the second act was a particularly stellar performance from Ms. Pearce and Mr. Johnson, and I cannot express how enchanting it was to watch.
Early in the first act, we also meet the Teen Council, including their stars, Link Larkin (played by Sky Kawai) and Amber Von Tussle (played by Madi Cooper), and Amber’s overbearing mother, Velma Von Tussle (played by Mandi Barrus). Mr. Kawai was also a joy to watch. His journey from privilege and status through questioning and fear then into the final action of supporting his true love, Tracy Turnblad, and finding his bravery was sometimes painful, often touching, but very real. I enjoyed taking that journey with him, and I admit, he sucked me right into his world.
Ms. Cooper and Ms. Barrus both exuded the arrogance that comes from their position, and I was particularly impressed with Ms. Barrus’s portrayal. Playing an antagonist is sometimes difficult when it goes against your personal nature, but Mr. Barrus created a malevolent foil to push Tracy in her journey. Kudos to her for being brave in being horrid. Ms. Cooper did a fantastic job of dancing horribly, well. Again, the trouble of playing younger felt like an obstacle she could have pushed past more, especially after she is dumped by Link and she starts to feel like her world is collapsing. I would have loved to see more immaturity for “Cooties,” considering the amount of grade-school insults that song contains, and it would have been completely appropriate in the context of her world being up-ended by someone who she has always been told would never be better than her.
The host of The Corny Collins Show, played expertly by Aaron Ford, was a stand-out for his complete immersion in the part. Solid talent, solid character, and never missed a beat. Mr. Ford was smooth and flawless. Bravo.
A quick note on the ensemble: PERFECTION. I adore shows where the ensemble is a moving, adaptable, complementary backdrop for the action. In scenes with the Teen Council, Detention, PE, the Platter Party at Motormouth Maybelle’s, all of the show actually, the singing was on-point, dancing on-point, characters on-point. Delightful and de-lovely.
Speaking of Motormouth Maybelle, the “Negro Day” host of The Corny Collins Show, she was my standing ovation. McKenna Jensen gave me a taste at the Platter Party in “Run and Tell That,” and blew me away with her soulful rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been.” She commanded the stage whenever she was on it, and her mouth opened wide and strong as she built confidence for Edna in “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful.” Stellar performance.
Under the direction of Jim Christian, with Jessica Merrill as choreographer, and Derek Myler as musical director, the show was a delight to watch and a pleasure to attend. The totality of the show, from the tight blocking/scene changes/choreography, all the way to the excellent sound and light quality, and amazing costumes, sets and props, was a masterpiece in the immediate acceptance of this suspended belief and the age-old adage that the mark of an excellent tech crew is the lack of notice. My husband remarked on the way home that he wasn’t even aware of any scene changes in the first act, and the ones he noticed later were not uncomfortable to sit through. I mentioned to him that I was well into the first act before I remembered that I was reviewing the show and needed to make some notes. I was quite literally sucked in. I still didn’t take many notes, because I didn’t want to break the spell. This is a well-done show, from beginning to end, and any notes I have made are somewhat nit-picky.
This show is a great family show, date night, or just a wonderful evening at the theater. There is some innuendo, but nothing blatant that would need explaining, and if kids don’t get the joke, they wouldn’t miss anything for content. As a further note about the jokes, there are several references to cultural and historical items of the times, and enhancing the theater experience for teens, tweens, millennials, and maybe even Gen X could include a quick Google/Wikipedia search of: Khrushchev, Richard (Dick) Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Gleason, Sammy Davis, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Wilt “The Stilt,” the Gabor sisters, Green Stamps, and Gina Lollobrigida. If you don’t want to do that much research, just an awareness of “separate but equal” may spark a great conversation about the struggles of the early 60s against current themes of bullying, prejudice, fear as a motivator, and inclusion/exclusion. Like Maybelle warns, “There’s a whole lot of ugly coming at you from a never-ending parade of stupid.”
Hairspray runs 2-1/2 hours with intermission, and there are bathroom facilities and a snack bar near the theater lobby. Do not miss out on this show! It runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturday evenings, with matinee performances on Saturdays through June 3rd. If you are interested in maybe finding a deal on admission, check out the theater’s modern addition of “The Grand Theater” app, which is a free download for iOS or Android.
The Grand Theater Company presents
Book by Thomas Meehan and Marc Shaiman
Music by Mark O’Donnell
Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman
Salt Lake Community College Grand Theater, 1575 South State, Salt Lake City, Utah
Performances Thursday through Saturday through June 3, 2017.
Evening performances at 7:30 PM. Matinees Saturdays at 2 PM.
Tickets range from $8 to $22, depending on show times and seating.
Contact information – Call 801-957-3322, or online at grandtheatercompany.com.