Walking into the theater for the premiere of Flowertown Players’ production of Hairspray
, it’s immediately clear that this is an audience that expects to enjoy the show. The theater, which faces Summerville’s Main Street, is nearly sold out, everyone is in high spirits, and friends and acquaintances trade greetings as they wait for the show to start. Clearly, the controversy regarding the theater’s recent production of Rent hasn’t dampened the community’s love for musical theater, and while Hairspray largely lacks coarse language, the message of diversity and acceptance (delivered mostly in song and dance numbers) is something for which Flowertown hasn’t lost its appetite.
For those not familiar with Hairspray
, the plot tells the story of Tracy Turnblad (Alex Shanko), a teen in 1960s Baltimore who is obsessed with fashion, dancing, and the Corny Collins Show. As the narrative unfolds, Tracy, who is heavier than the teen dancers on the show, auditions and is initially rejected by the show’s villainous producer, Velma Van Tussle (Sarah Farra). While serving detention with a group of African-American students, however, she learns some new moves from a new friend, Seaweed Stubbs (Treshawn Ford), and lands a spot on the show courtesy of the host, Corny Collins (L.D. Lewis) himself. Rather than simply enjoy her time in the spotlight, however, Tracy takes on the cause of her new friends from detention and gets in trouble for attempting to integrate the show.
In the role of Tracy, Shanko stands out as the clear star of the production. She plays the role with the right combination of confidence, self-doubt, and pep for a ’60s teenage trailblazer. Her voice is strong, and she has a good sense for when to play to her co-stars and when to direct herself to the crowd. Playing Tracy’s love interest, Link Larkin, Christopher Berry is not always able to quite match Shanko’s level of energy and commitment, but his handle on Link is strong — conflicted between standing for what he knows is right and doing what’s in the best interests of his teen idol ambitions, he might be the most complex character in the straightforward narrative. As Seaweed, Ford is the standout dancer, his moves projecting the effortlessness of someone with a natural gift who is also willing to put in hours of practice. His acting is solid, too. Ford’s effortless charm is what helps overcome the race barrier, allowing he and Tracy to become fast friends.
Kelly McDavid plays Tracy’s best friend (and Seaweed’s love interest), Penny, with a degree of nervous energy bordering on a medical ailment, but it suits the repressed character. In constant motion, Penny works to deliver comic relief even when the main action is happening on the other side of the stage. Another notable performance is delivered by Denetra King, playing Seaweed’s mother (the host of “Negro Day” on the Corny Collins Show
), Motormouth Maybelle. While King initially has trouble finding the beats for Maybelle’s often-rhyming dialogue, she also delivers the high point of the show, with a truly inspiring and heartfelt delivery of the gospel-tinged “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Unfortunately Edna — Tracy's mom, played by Chris Williams (in drag) — was the weakest link. The other cast members, for the most part, acquit themselves admirably, but it’s worth noting that the younger cohorts were responsible for the most memorable moments, with the exception of King’s showcase song. While this is due at least in part to the structure of the teen-centric storyline, it suggests an exciting future for Flowertown Players, if they can keep the talent (many of whom are attending college elsewhere in state) in town, or at least coming back to Summerville for shows.
As is to be expected, the production is scaled down from the Broadway version, but it’s scaled down thoughtfully and effectively by director David McLaughlin and set designer Robert Venne. Sets are effective, unfussy, and appropriate for the material and time period. The actors have clearly been encouraged to make use of every inch of available space. Consequently, the show manages to retain as much of the immersive, larger-than-life sense of spectacle as one could reasonably expect from a small-town production. There are some slight issues with some of the cast members’ mics (most noticeably Berry’s), which delivers muddy sound, but those will hopefully be addressed for subsequent shows. In a few scenes, where simultaneous action is happening in multiple locations, the lighting crew does a good job of directing the audience’s attention in what could have otherwise become confusing on the small stage.
All told, Hairspray
doesn’t disappoint. The opening-night audience leaves the theater laughing and praising their favorite songs and performers. The message of community, optimism, and unity all hard to criticize, after all. One wonders if it’s entirely coincidence that the controversy of Rent is followed by a period musical that deals with the hot-button topics like discrimination. Regardless, Hairspray will continue to deliver its’ positive message of dreaming big and fighting for justice until August 17.