Dec. 5 Syracuse Stage: Hairspray

Kyle Anderson (center, as Corny Collins) and the Council Kids in Syracuse Stage's production of "Hairspray" (photo: Michael Davis)

Kyle Anderson (center, as Corny Collins) and the Council Kids in Syracuse Stage’s production of “Hairspray” (photo: Michael Davis)

‘Hairspray’ paints a smile across the face that holds

There’s ‘real good’ singing and dancing in this ‘feel good’ co-production by Syracuse Stage and SU Drama

By Michael O’Connor

Love wins out against all odds in the Syracuse Stage-SU Drama co-production of the charming holiday spectacle, Hairspray — the delightful musical that tackles issues of race relations, class discrepancy and body image without becoming overbearing. The musical’s happy ending may be a melodramatic fantasy, but it had Friday evening’s opening night crowd on its feet clapping in time with the music and cheering the final dance sequence.

I left the play with a smile on my face that lasted throughout the remainder of the evening. It made one believe, if just for a single raucous moment, that love might really just be enough to solve the world’s ills. What more can one ask of holiday fare?

Hairspray follows the adventures of ’60s era music-and-dance-crazed Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad, ebulliently played by Mary DiGangi, as the overweight girl fights to win a spot on her favorite television dance show: The Corny Collins Show.

The plot begins to brew when Tracy and best friend Penny, portrayed with an endearingly child-like shy awkwardness by Lila Coogan, learn that the show has an opening for a new dancer. Tracy’s determination to audition for a place on the teenybopper show draws support from her idealistic father Wilbur, but meets with resistance from her overly protective mother Edna, who believes Tracy lacks sufficient glamor for the likes of television and show biz.

Here begins the major theme of the work: Outsiders can and should have a valued place in American culture. This is something that Wilbur seems to know intuitively, but Edna — perhaps because she bears the scars of disappointment as an overweight working-class woman — will only learn through the success of her daughter.

David Lowenstein (Edna), left, and Mark David Kaplan (Wilbur) (photo: Michael Davis)

David Lowenstein (Edna), left, and Mark David Kaplan (Wilbur) (photo: Michael Davis)

Mark David Kaplan’s Wilbur, and David Loewenstein’s drag performance as Edna, display a believable and sweet affection for each other. At first it appears that Lowenstein will merely play a one-dimensional, campy comic character. But by the time he and Kaplan sing and dance to the duet (You’re) Timeless to Me later in the play, he has transformed into a fully-rounded character whose love for Wilbur becomes a model that represents the worth and desirability of all people and all body types.

As can be expected, Tracy earns a spot on the show. And her route there, though circuitous, suggests another theme of the work: Love and kindness can conquer prejudice.

When Tracy arrives at the audition, the show’s producer Velma and daughter Amber (presented with deliciously cartoonish villainy by Marie Kemp and Tristen Buettel, respectively), subject the teen to derisive comments about her weight and class, then kick her out of the studio without even watching her dance. Tracy ultimately does earn a spot on the show, however, after Corny — the show’s namesake — watches her perform some nifty dance moves learned from African American classmate, Seaweed (performed with acrobatic flair by Austin Holmes.)

Austin Holmes (left) as Seaweed and Mary DiGangi as Tracy (photo: Michael Davis)

Austin Holmes (left) as Seaweed and Mary DiGangi as Tracy (photo: Michael Davis)

Tracy and Seaweed’s willingness to be kind to one-another and reach beyond boundaries of color is a driving force behind the plot, and ultimately brings the play to its happy conclusion. In the The Corny Collins Show, all artificial divisions of class, race and body type peel away during the raucous dance ensemble sequences, as all characters achieve their heart’s desire to the fullest. Even the wicked Velma and Edna change their ways (and are rewarded lavishly) in the process. Love and friendship overcome all barriers.

One of the remarkable things about Hairspray is the manner in which the musical manages to temper the pain of society’s entrenched social problems.

The second act, for example, slides back and forth between a representation of real social ills and their consequences and an absurdly easy overcoming of these issues. After Tracy is incarcerated for her role in a race riot that breaks out during her attempt to integrate The Corny Collins Show, she escapes when her teen heartthrob boyfriend Link (Troy Hussmann) uses a can of hairspray and a lighter as blowtorch to cut through the bars of her cell. Here, the play pivots from the real-world consequences of attempts to end segregation to a fantasy-like escape. These happy moments, however unrealistic, provide the audience with hope to continue the struggle for a better world — a message brought home in the fantastical conclusion.

Aurelia Williams as  Motormouth (photo: Michael Davis)

Aurelia Williams as Motormouth (photo: Michael Davis)

This hopeful ethos is summed up beautifully during I Know Where I’ve Been, a number sung ever so sweetly by Aurelia Williams as Seaweed’s mother, Motormouth Maybelle. Motormouth exhorts the young activists, including the fugitive Tracy, that though “there’s a struggle that we have yet to win” they have to keep going because “the riches will be plenty worth the price.”

The struggle to create a better America, free from prejudice and hatred, is a long struggle that will not be easy but is well worth the price. Hairspray gives us a joyous sense of having already reached that goal.

The sense of joy at the conclusion of the play could not have come about without the wonderful music and dancing by the troupe and the beautiful set on which the action takes place.

Scenic Designer Adam Koch’s, along with Costume Designer Aaron P. Mastin’s wardrobe, create a carefully orchestrated mix of gritty Baltimore and a bright dream-like pastel palette. Koch’s set masterfully creates a two-tier set with a large dance area and a second story apartment off to the side. The audience simultaneously sees the dingy apartment where Edna does laundry as Penny and Tracy watch TV and the vibrant set and costumes of The Corny Collins Show.

Jut as the TV fantasy and the viewer’s prosaic reality are made to coexist, the wigs designed by Erin Lunsford become increasingly elaborate as the play progresses, reaching farcical proportions by the end — highlighting the cartoonish elements of the musical’s dreamlike fantasy.

Ultimately, an extravaganza such as Hairspray lives or dies through the quality of its singing and dancing. And the talented cast of young actors from the SU Drama Department was more than up to the task.

The troupe moved smoothly through David Wanstreet’s impressive choreography in both the synchronized ensemble dance sequences of The Corny Collins Show and the seemingly anarchic dodge ball dance and race riot.

Two actors deserve to be singled out for the quality of their performances. Austin Holmes’s Seaweed glides across the stage and grabs the viewers’ attention as he performs amazing move-after-move while maintaining an infectious grin. Mary DiGangi’s Tracy manages to portray both a childlike and uncontainable joy in her dance numbers while still displaying a burgeoning sensuality and sexual confidence that underscores her growing sense of self throughout the play.

That Wittman and Shaiman’s music and lyrics won the 2003 Tony Award for Best Original Score (along with seven other Tonys) comes as no surprise. The pair masterfully evokes the sounds of the early ’60s through a combination of blues, rock and roll and Broadway styling. The result is a fresh, updated sound that pays homage to the era without appearing stale or nostalgic.

Syracuse Stage’s production of Hairspray is a rare holiday treat. Its sweetness entertains and does not leave an aftertaste of emptiness. You’ll leave the theater with a smile on your face… and hope in your heart.

Details Box:
What: Hairspray, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Who: Syracuse Stage, co-production with SU Drama
Where: Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, NY
Performance reviewed: Dec. 5, 2014 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through January 4
Length: About 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 15 minute intermission
Tickets: Adults $30-$49; 18 and under $18; 40 and under $30-$35; senior discounts all performances except Fri./Sat. P.M
Call: 315-443-3275 or syracusestage.org
Family guide: Suggestive humor appropriate for ages 12 and over

Syracuse Stage asks that you kindly consider bringing a donation of non-perishable food items to benefit the food pantry at Grace Episcopal Church; and coats, gloves and hats (all sizes) to benefit the families of Franklin Elementary School in the Syracuse City School District

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