By Jason Evans
SCERA’s current production of Hairspray proves once again that comedy has great power to enrich an audience when approached from a serious position, leaving us feeling like our lives are made better by experiencing it. But the rich comedy can still entertain and we find us leaving the theater filled with sheer joy.
As director Jan Shelton Hunsaker states in her director’s notes: back in 1962, when Hairspray takes place, America was in the midst of a great civil rights struggle. Today, we are fighting an even greater one.
Our country is often on opposite sides on how to deal with important issues: Muslims, immigration, the LGBTQ community, modern society’s views of beauty, obesity, and the list goes on and on. It seems that in every way, this country is polarizing and people are becoming more distant from one another. Hairspray celebrates love, life, family, community, and through the heroic and optimistic eyes of the shows heroine, Tracy Turnblad (Chelsea Lindsay), we see that we are all alike, and that diversity, acceptance, tolerance are traits that should be admired and encouraged, not ridiculed and discouraged.
Thank goodness for excellent productions like the SCERA gives our community. An audience is much more receptive to soul-searching and looking at itself when presented through the rose-colored glasses of musical comedy. All great musical comedies throughout the history of theater have done this, and Hairspray is no exception.
Jan Shelton Hunsaker and her brother Brad’s scenic design captured the heart of the 60s with great musical theater style but simple in its presentation. Deborah Bowman’s wonderful costumes were bright, colorful, and a feast for the eyes as well as a great way to distinguish between characters. This is especially helpful because the Shell’s stage is large. Bowman is a master at this and her designs never disappoint. Elizabeth Griffith’s lighting was the most elaborate I’ve ever seen on the Shell stage; it helped to convey the energy and excitement of this show.
First and foremost, the ensemble work in this show was great. The energy was there and I know will continue to expand and increase in energy each night of the run. The energy of the ensemble was infectious.
Lindsay’s Tracy Turnblad was unique and was the first time I had seen an actress play this role with equal optimism but also realistic expectations.. From the opening number, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” I was hooked and rooting for her the entire evening. Her infectious laugh was endearing and I just wanted to be up on stage with her taking the journey with her.
Tearza Foyston’s Penny Pingleton was the surprise of the evening. Unlike other performances I’ve seen, Foyston was bright, funny, endearing. She and Tracy were a force to be reckoned with. Her journey from innocence to allowing herself to have fun and take more risks was believable and a joy to watch.
What can I say about Andrew Lloyd Hunsaker and his incredible, hilarious, moving portrayal of Tracy’s mother, Edna? Hunsaker is an actor I’ve admired and loved for a very long time. He embodies each of his roles with professionalism and a love for each character he portrays, and Edna is no exception. He took command of the stage every time he was on and I fell in love with the relationship between Edna and Tracy from the start. Hunsaker played this role as it should be, a complex and beautiful wife and mother who would do anything for her family. There were many times throughout the evening I forgot Hunsaker was playing the role, I only saw Edna.
The male leads, Dennis Wright (Wilbur Turnblad), Jaxon Dayton (Link Larkin), Kristian Huff (Corny Collins), and Michael Thomas (Seaweed J. Stubbs) were all fun to watch and each portrayed their characters with integrity and honesty. Our villains, Leslie Preator-Keckley (Velma Von Tussle) and Sasha Sloan (Amber Von Tussle) were hilarious and fun and I loved the fact they didn’t portray them as cardboard villains. In this production of Hairspray, they are human, a product of their time, and in the end, join the community, so there is some hope for them.
Last but not least, the incredible Luseane Pasa as Motormouth Maybelle is a shining star. This is my favorite character in the show and Pasa brought such integrity and compassion to the role. She is the one that brings the message of the show to the audience, the great 11 o’clock number, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” A final compliment to Daisy Allred as Little Inez; what a wonderful character and her energy was infectious the entire evening.
Finally, Tiffany Winkel Nutter did such a wonderful job with the music and her choreography was unique and added so much to the production. There was dance in portions of the show that I have never seen dance in before, and it added so much to those scenes and to the portrayal of the story. It’s a big job to handle such a large ensemble, and she did it with professionalism and great style. Welcome back to Utah, Ms. Nutter. Utah Theater has missed you.
The SCERA has produced a great piece of musical theater and this is a show not to be missed. If you’ve never seen it before, get yourself down to Orem and experience what is Hairspray. If you’ve seen the movie, or have seen another live production, still attend this one. There is enough that’s fresh and new that you will love this show even more.
Note: If you’ve never been to the SCERA shell theater—it’s outdoors. Take a blanket or camp chair to sit on, a jacket (it gets chilly once the sun goes down), and maybe some bug spray.
The show plays Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 PM at the SCERA Shell Outdoor Theatre in SCERA Park in Orem, Utah. 699 S State St. Gates open at 7:00PM with the box office opening at 6:30PM on the north side of the Shell. You can also purchase tickets online at www.scera.org, in person at the SCERA Center for the Arts, 745 S State St in Orem, Utah; Monday-Friday (10:00 AM-8:00PM), Saturday (Noon-8:00 PM) or call 801-225-ARTS.