Friday, July 23, 2010

Hairspray After The Storm

Opening night with Greendale Community Theatre’s Production of HAIRSPRAY

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Tornadic Activity In Greendale

One of the heaviest rainfalls in the history of Milwukee was coming down as I approached Greendale High School. I hadn’t been expecting as much, so I arrived soaking wet. By the time I’d considered myself dry enough to exit the men’s room, the lobby of the auditorium was bustling. A few seconds later there was the announcement: a tornado warning required everyone to pile into the basement of the high school.

Myself and quite a few others had gone to the high school to attend opening night of Greendale Community Theatre’s production of Hairspray. Opening night of the local regional theatre premiere of the hit Broadway musical had hit the stage on a night when two tornadoes and a twister had been sited in the area. (Quite an entrance.) GHS is a pretty big high school. There had been a number of people there for other reasons . . . but those of us who were going to see the show were corralled into a basement computer lab with the cast and crew of the show. It was less than an hour to go before the 7:30 pm opening curtain.

Cast, crew and audience all shared the same space. It was an interesting atmosphere—backstage pre-show chatter from the actors mixed with pre-show lobby conversations from the audience. Actors applied make-up only a few feet from audience members who stood patiently reading their bios in the show’s program. A man in a shirt, tie and a tweed jacket stood in his boxer shorts holding a pair of slacks as he talked to a techie girl. He had a mic taped to his face. Guys in ‘60’s-style white shirts and ties stood around with mics taped to their face in a basement computer lab looking very Apollo-era NASA. Weird.

Adding a little levity, the show’s director Brian Bzdawka announced 25 minutes to curtain. Everyone in the room had become acutely aware that the show was unlikely to start on time. Periodic announcements overt the P.A. system let everyone know that we would be released as soon as the “tornadic activity,” had passed. And indeed it did pass, allowing for a mass movement of everyone back to the lobby. Actors in various stages of preparation were walking amidst audience members down the basement corridors of the high school, up the stairs into a winding hallway. The show would start shortly.

The Show

Analyzed out of context, the standard American musical is a bit of a psychotic fugue. The idea that intense human emotions can cause a fully choreographed song and dance number between people who may or may not know each other doesn’t conform to everyday reality. The best musicals can transcend the format and make it believable in some way. John Waters’ film Hairspray makes an interesting subject for musical theatre adaptation. It’s placed in a strange alternate universe where people with names like Tracy Turnblad, Corny Collins and Seaweed speak in campy dialogue. It’s a 1960’s that openly embraces racial segregation and the “in-crowd” is clearly identified. A story painted in such garishly exaggerated simplicity takes remarkably well to the musical theatre format.

Greendale Community Theatre does a good job of bringing the world of Hairspray to the stage. Designed by director Brian Bzdawka, the set feels remarkably big. The whole thing looks like a ‘60’s-era marble print Formica counter top in mild pastels. Twin ramps from the ground floor lead-up to a second level. While the budget for the production appears to have been pretty substantial, the costuming didn’t have the extravagant budget given to a full Broadway production. Costume Designers Michael Keiley and Kate Vannoy did quite a bit with what they had, developing a rich, Technicolor foreground for the pastel Formica background.

Charming Brittany Radocha plays Tracy Turnblad—a girl who dreams of being one of the wholesome teenage dancers on TV’s Corny Collins Show. Turnblad’s living room is a tiny space at the top of the set. The larger than life TV reality of the show fills the main stage below with a charismatic James Jones as Corny Collins at the center of it all. Jones strikes a shade somewhere between cheesy, classy and hip in the role of the icon. Turnblad’s dreams of being on the show come close to being realized as one of the teens is forced to take a nine-month leave of absence.

Watching the show, Turnblad has always longed for Collins crooner Link Larkin played by lanky Michael Stoddard. Auditioning for the show, she has the opportunity to meet him. Stoddard has solid comic instincts that occasionally glance across the stage and make for an idiosyncratic love interest for Turnblad. Turnblad’s sweet innocence runs the risk of feeling kind of flat against the backdrop of the rest of the plot, but Radocha does a pretty good job of keeping the character interesting in spite of this. To her credit, Turnblad never overplays the sweetness. Turnblad’s earnest desire for integration comes across quite vividly.

The juxtaposition of a tiny living room against the huge TV studio is interesting, but the action taking place in the living room throughout the show feels a bit too distant. The size of the production offers few alternatives that would make sense, however. Put the living room closer to the audience and it would clutter things up considerably . . .the production features a 14-person band that rests in the middle of the set, cleverly offset from the rest of the action without the need of an orchestra pit. This works pretty well acoustically. Actors work with headset mics. The band may have overpowered the mics in some places, but most of the touring Broadway shows I've seen have had more sound problems than opening night of this production.

Sentenced to punishment for the height of her hair, Turnblad runs into a group of black kids who have been put in special ed. In an effort to keep them out of the way. There she meets Seaweed J. Stubbs—a hip guy played by Shawn Holmes. Holmes and Stoddard are some of the stronger male musical voices here. There’s a sinewy soulfulness to Holmes’ voice that solidly anchors the African-American end of the cast.

Also of note here are Robby McGhee and Jordan Gwiazdowski as Tracy’s parents Edna and Wilbur. Continuing off his old British bellhop in Carte Blanche’s Out Of Order, Gwiazdoski plays an old guy who owns a joke shop. Gwiazdowski is endearing Cute And Quirky Old Guy—another accomplishment from the margins of the stage for him. McGhee goes beyond the guy-as-hefty-old-woman gag and brings a real emotional center to the role of Tracy’s mother. The two characters pairing in “You’re Timeless To Me,” seems like a heap attempt to offset the high-energy of the production with a sweet, tender tribute to long-term unconditional love, but Gwiazdowski and McGhee carry off the duet skillfully enough to keep it from feeling cloying.

Much of the action drifts around stage without any specific scenery beyond the marbley pastel background. The high-energy show moves along briskly enough that the visual impression of a TV soundstage doesn’t get in the way. The performances are generally strong enough that mood and setting sink in without the need for additional decoration. Choreographer Samantha Paige lends a thoroughly satisfying physical end to the musical energy of an enjoyable evening of musical theatre.

The Greendale Community Theatre’s production of Hairspray runs through July 31st at the Greendale High School Auditorium.

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