John Waters’ classic cult film Hairspray is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. After the huge success of the film-based musical on Broadway – which won several Tony Awards, spawned more than one national tour, and paved the way for a multitude of regional productions, and a Hollywood film musical – I’d dare say that more people know about Hairspray than ever before. Therefore, it seems ideal for Mr. Waters to come back to his native area (Baltimore, technically) and, together with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), give local audiences the opportunity to celebrate this achievement with a symphonic concert of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s peppy Broadway musical score with snippets of Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s book. Featuring Mr. Waters (with all of his infectious enthusiasm) in the narrator role, talented local students at the Baltimore School for the Arts in ensemble/choral roles, and a cast of Broadway and regional theatrical talent in the principal roles (all in full costumes, designed by Clare Henkel, I might add), Hairspray in Concert is certainly a fun celebration. There are several standout players and nearly everyone is bursting with energy and enthusiasm, which makes it ultimately memorable.
Hairspray, of course, is the story of the chubby and idealistic Tracy Turnblad who wants nothing more than to dance on a local Baltimore TV show – The Corny Collins Show. When a spot opens up on the show, she meets with some resistance at first due to her size and her attitudes towards racial integration – let’s just say she wants the show to feature African American performers every week alongside the Caucasian kids, not just on the once-a-month Negro Day. However, in the end she achieves her goals (and gets a cute boy, Link, in the process) all with personality, passion, and determination, and well, big hair.
Hairspray in Concert, which played at Bethesda’s The Music Center at Strathmore before it moves to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore for the weekend, features this charming story with an added twist – a symphonic orchestra under the direction of conductor Jack Everly. The orchestra plays the music with precision and some modicum of enthusiasm. The expansive and robust sound is welcome at a time when the size of orchestras is constantly being reduced in live theatre. However, the BSO never seems to jell with the playful nature of the score and, although the score is well-played, it never seems to really rock it out.
The principal singer-actors also achieve varying degrees of success in this concert format. Marissa Perry, best known for playing the role on Broadway, brings the necessary sass, spunk, and enthusiasm to the role of Tracy Turnblad and displays strong vocals and movement. Never once does her energy let down. She’s completely present at all times and embodies Tracy at every moment. Her “I Can Hear the Bells” is certainly one highlight among many. Julie Kavanagh is also delightful as Tracy’s less confident friend, Penny Pingleton. Eschewing the usual ‘Broadway belt’ approach to singing the role for the most part, she brings oodles of personality and certainly connects with her character and delivers a strong performance particularly during “Without Love.” Paul Vogt, who has played the role of Tracy’s mother Edna Turnblad on Broadway and in Las Vegas, is also one of the standouts along with Micky Dolenz (yes, of The Monkees fame) as Tracy’s father, Wilbur. Their performance of “(You’re) Timeless to Me” is one of the most well-acted ones I’ve seen. The tender and endearing relationship between Edna and Wilbur is certainly explored and the two have an incredible chemistry with one another.
NaTasha Yvette Williams also exudes charisma and confidence in her portrayal of Motormouth Maybelle, who serves as an inspiration for Tracy’s quest for racial integration in Baltimore. Her rendition of “Big Blonde and Beautiful” is a showstopper. Marcus Terell, as Maybelle’s son Seaweed, also gives a charming performance. A true triple threat, his acting, singing, and dancing are ultimately memorable. Along with Perry, he brings life and energy to Jennifer Ladner’s peppy and 60s-inspired choreography.
Less successful are Nick Adams as Tracy’s love interest Link and Tony Award-winner Beth Leavel as Velma von Tussle, a producer on the Corny Collins Show and mother to the spoiled and self-absorbed Amber (a mostly on point Rhiannon Hansen), another member of The Corny Collins show. Although Adams and Leavel sing the roles quite well, both display less than stellar acting – at least in this concert format. Adams seems emotionally-detached from the role, as if he’s walking through it, and lacks any chemistry with Perry as Tracy. Although I realize it’s a concert version, it’s hard for me to see why Tracy would be into him other than the fact that he’s cute. He mostly fades into the background and lacks presence. Leavel is appropriately villain-like while playing Velma, but her completely over-the-top rendition of “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs)” seems to be more about screaming the lyrics than connecting with what they mean. It’s far too cartoonish to have any impact. She fares better at other moments in the show, however, including the culminating scene where her character is ultimately put into her place.
The Strathmore presentation of this concert, at least, featured some sound and lighting-related technical problems. At times, singers could not be heard over the bombastic orchestra and the lighting cues (particularly the spotlights) weren’t always hit with precision. However, given this was a one-night concert performance, it’s ultimately understandable. If executed properly, it’s probable that Donald Thomas’ lighting designs and the sound (with consultation from Randy Hansen) would have shone.
Ultimately, however, the concert is fun. Since this is Hairspray (and not, say for example, Stephen Sondheim’s Passion), isn’t that what it’s all about?
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes including an intermission.
Hairspray in Concert played at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD – on January 24, 2013. It plays at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall – 1212 Cathedral St in Baltimore, MD through January 27, 2013. For tickets to the concert at the Myerhoff, call 410-783-8000 or purchase them online.