'Hairspray' showcases big voices, small set charm


Turnblad, played by Brooke Shapiro, sings the dance number, “Nicest Kids in Town,” in ZACH Theatre’s production of “Hairspray.”(Courtesy of Kirk Tuck)

The stage lights center on a short, plump girl with big hair waking up in her bed. As her bedroom transforms into the sidewalks of Baltimore, she sings about greeting the city in her sassy soprano voice. Her larger-than-life personality resonates throughout the small theater. ?

Saturday marked the opening night of “Hairspray” at ZACH Theatre. Directed by Dave Steakley, the energetic musical centers around the themes of love, racial equality and self-acceptance told through the plight of aspiring TV dancer personality Tracy Turnblad.

?The play is set in 1960s Baltimore, where big girl Tracy Turnblad (Brooke Shapiro) lives with her mother Edna, performed in drag by Brian Coughlin; and her father Wilbur (Scotty Roberts). The story picks up when Tracy, with the support of her best friend Penny Pingleton (Christine Tucker), decides to cut class and go to the set of the Corny Collins’ TV show and audition for the open dancer position on the show. ?

After being laughed off set by the show’s closed-minded producer, Velma Von Tussle (Jill Blackwood) and her daughter, the show’s star Amber (Sara Burke), Tracy slinks back to her regular life feeling discouraged. She receives some encouragement in detention from a new friend, Seaweed J. Stubbs (Joshua Denning). ?

The musical takes on the racial tension of the 1960s in a simplified way. While Tracy is finally receiving the teen-idolized fame she always dreamed of, it doesn’t seem quite as important if she can’t dance alongside her African American friends on the show. She represents the new ideas of a younger generation untouched by the prejudices of the past. Although this is a lighthearted celebration of an important breakthrough in the American Civil Rights movement, it’s clear there is still a ways to go.?

For those who have seen the movie, the live performance at ZACH Theatre is a completely different experience. There is a slightly more mature edge, with a bevy of comically risque side comments. It’s nothing crude or obvious enough to detract from its family friendliness, but definitely something to take into account. The removal of all cinematic elements makes the musical feel more personal and lends itself to the small audience interactions impossible on the big screen.

?The set is largely scaled down from that of the touring Broadway show. Because the theater has a limited amount of stage space, the use of props is minimal, with only the necessary elements on stage. For instance, in the opening scene, “Good Morning Baltimore,” instead of completely transforming into the busy, dirty ’60s streets of Baltimore, the chorus of city dwellers popped out from behind Tracy’s bed.

However, what the show lacked in set design was made up by the show’s extravagant costumes. From tall, beehive wigs to full-on gloves and bedazzled dresses of the Motown generation, the frequent costume changes spurred the performance.

The musical itself is definitely a feel-good experience in which the underdogs always win. The heavyset girl gets the popular guy, everyone is rooting for the biracial couple and the behemoth of a man dressed in drag wins the hearts of audience members with a tender love song to her husband. Edna stole the show with her boisterous personality and comedic outbursts, such as when she gets into a catty argument with Velma Von Tussle in the record shop.

?While all the musical numbers were dynamic and energetic, there were a few standouts. The pop song “Welcome to the 60s,” sung by The Dynamites (Angelica Fay Davis, Kia Dawn Fulton and Tiffany Mann) packed powerful vocal punches from the sassy three-woman chorus as they moved through the musical number. They harmonized well together, but the song stood out because all three had strong solos. ?

In the second act, Motormouth Maybelle’s (Janis Stinson) “I Know Where I’ve Been,” is an empowering and soulful number about not giving up on the long road to equality. The rest of the musical is so fun and bright that this deep, meaningful vocal powerhouse catches you off guard and stirs up feelings of emotional inspiration. ?

“Without Love,” perhaps one of the musical’s most iconic songs, did not disappoint. Tracy, Link, Penny and Seaweed lead the ensemble in a song about how everything seems meaningless without the people they care about. Penny finally showcases her singing and provides a little more depth to her character expressing her love for Seaweed. The musical number had the best ensemble vocals by far, and they all moved in a choreographed dance.

Although supposedly the superstar of the musical, Shapiro’s portrayal of Tracy was somewhat overshadowed by the vocal strength and larger-than-life personalities of other cast members, namely Stinson’s Motormouth and Coughlin’s Edna. There is a genuine quality to Shapiro’s performance, but it did not entirely punch through the thicket of Stinson’s and Coughlin’s characters.

Experiencing Steakley’s rendition of “Hairspray” is a definite departure from that of the movie or the traveling Broadway show. With the absence of an expansive stage and over-the-top sets, the viewer is left with much more focus on the actual performance of each character. For the most part, the vocals live up to the challenge, but it’s definitely not the huge production viewers might expect.