‘Hairspray’ at Howard County Summer Theatre by Amanda Gunther


Baltimore’s favorite musical comes riding into town as the Howard County Summer Theatre presents their production of Hairspray. The Tony Award-winning musical focuses on the life of Tracy Turnblad, a big girl who just wants to dance on the Corny Collins afterschool dance television program with all the skinny girls. Mix in the adversity of the segregated 60’s, give everybody a hair-hoppin’ high ‘do and you’ve got one crazy amazing musical.

Edna (Steve Namie) and Wilbur (Todd Hochkeppel). Photo by Jeff Stanford.

The major problems with this particular production come from over-crowding and poor casting choices. Director Tom Sankey does not do the musical, the talent of his lead performers, or the talent of his choreographer justice by flooding the stage with a cast of 87 people. There are scenes where many of the actors in the ensemble end up lining the rows of the aisles distracting from what’s going on up on the stage. And during big group numbers where the dancing should be all you can focus on, instead all you can draw your attention to is how nobody can move because of having so many bodies crammed on the stage. This happens during “Welcome To The 60’s,” “Big Blonde and Beautiful,” and “The Nicest Kids In Town.”

“The Nicest Kids In Town” is a huge misstep with stage overcrowding as the council only has ten named members that get sung during the “roll-call” portion of the song while the rest just stand there looking useless. This also makes the plot point of needing to replace Brenda irrelevant, which is the whole catalyst for Tracy to get on the show in the first place. Decisions like these drag the show down and make it really hard to enjoy.

Sankey has further problems with his casting. His choice for leading female Tracy Turnblad makes the musical unbearable. The girl looks much older than any of the other teens on stage and is roughly a size seven or eight, a relatively skinny girl. This blows major plot holes into the structure of the show and makes every scene where they call her fat, crack a fat joke, or sing a song about Tracy’s size completely pointless; thus making most of the show confusing and unnecessary. It’s one thing to cast a skinny girl and pad her accordingly but Caitlin Grant was left untouched and there were two council members on the Corny Collins show who were larger in width than she was. This was the most disappointing choice of the show.

Tracy (Caitlin Grant) and Penny (Laura Tschirgi). Photo by Jeff stanford.

The casting mistakes continue with Little Inez (Naomi Abankwah) who is taller than Tracy and almost taller than her brother Seaweed, and speaks with a mature adult sounding voice, and sings in the same manner. While her voice is beautiful and strong, it’s just not what you expect from someone who is supposed to be Seaweed’s ‘little’ sister. Link Larkin (Zac Brightbill) also looks wildly out of place, as he looks much older than most of the teenagers in the show, but still too young for the haggard looking Tracy. And then because Tracy looks so very old, both Stephen Namie (as Edna) and Todd Hochkeppel (as Wilbur) look far too young to be playing her parents, and look  more like siblings of Tracy.

And to put the icing on the cake Set Designer Joe Blasko spells “Mr. Pinky’s” wrong on the giant sign above the store. In the program (in two different spots mind you,) the name is spelled “Pinky” or Mr. Pinky’s in regards to the place. But the giant sign hung over the shop on stage reads “Mr. Pinkie’s.” It was very irksome and looked unprofessional.

There were some talented cast members who really did try to shine through the nearly hundred other people on stage. Amber (Kassi Mattera) was every bit the catty, vicious Barbie doll her character is expected to be. Coupled with her mother Velma (Marloe Lippert) the pair redeem the slow-paced “You Can’t Stop The Beat” with their quirky and upbeat verse. Lippert also steals the show with her incredible rendition of “Miss Baltimore Crabs Reprise.” She’s saucy and evil and all the things you love to hate in a villainous character.

Stephen Namie as the big lady Edna Turnblad, despite having no trace of the Baltimore accent whatsoever, is breath of fresh air to the production. He and Todd Hochkeppel as Wilbur really ignite the stage with their duo “Timeless To Me” The best moment of the entire show is the unscripted improved nonsense and shenanigans that happens between Hochkeppel and Namie during the reprise of this number; truly keeping the audience laughing as they share little romantic moments of hilarity.

And there is talent and chemistry to be found between Penny Pingleton (Laura Tschirgi) and Seaweed (Cameron Cox). Both have powerful expressive voices that can be heard and are full of emotion when they sing. Cox and Tschirgi, unlike Grant, also move and dance when they sing, with a great enthusiasm and passion for being on the stage. Tschirgi does spastic a level of justice unseen before this production, and is really the comic highlight of the show. Cox captures the audience with his sweet sound and upbeat attitude in “Run and Tell That.”

And let’s not forget Motor Mouth Maybelle (Kay-Megan Washington). Washington pushes her boisterous voice and talent out to the audience for all to hear. She gives a soulful slow and meaningful rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” in Act II and brings a charisma to the stage unrivaled by anyone else in the show.

Penny (Laura Tschirgi) and Seaweed (Cameron Cox). Photo by Jeff Stanford.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Hairspray plays through Saturday July 14, 2012 at The Mount Hebron High School Auditorium – 9440 MD-99 in Ellicott City, MD. Tickets may be purchased online or at the door.

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