‘Hairspray’ at Magruder High School

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The words “tuneful” and “energetic” only begin to describe Magruder High School’s production of the Tony-award-winning musical Hairspray. Based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name,  with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, Hairspray combines social commentary with music, dance, romance, and humor. This feel-good musical comedy tells the story of “pleasingly plump” teenage girl, Tracy Turnblad—brilliantly portrayed by the multi-talented Erin Panken—who fights injustice in 1962 Baltimore while she struggles to be accepted by her fellow students. Tracy’s journey rings true today, with our efforts to combat bullies in our schools and discrimination of all kinds in our society. One might think this show would be heavy-handed and preachy, but it is anything but.

The cast of Magruder High School's 'Hairspray.' Photo by Serena Hinklel.
The cast of Magruder High School’s ‘Hairspray.’ Photo by Serena Hinklel.

The musical pens with Tracy getting out of bed and singing “Good Morning, Baltimore.” She thinks it’s cool to spray and tease her hair as high as possible, but she gets in trouble at school because the students sitting behind her can’t see the blackboard. She and her friend rush home every day to watch the Corny Collins television show. The show features a dance party format with local teenage couples. Most days, only white kids are allowed to dance on the show, but once a month they have ‘Negro Day,’ when only black kids are allowed on the show.

Tracy believes she is as talented a dancer as the other kids on the show and is determined to audition. Her mother is against the idea for fear that Tracy will be made fun of because of her weight. That is exactly what happens, but fortunately Corny himself is impressed by Tracy’s talent at another event and she becomes a dancer on the show. Tracy and Corny also share the belief that black kids and white kids should be allowed to dance on the same show, and Tracy uses her new-found celebrity to fight for racial integration. She encounters various obstacles along the way.

Through Marla Harper’s excellent direction, the students’ performances are comparable to professional theatre. For example, three sets of mothers and daughters sing “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” with near-perfect precision. Hannah Cohen turns in a strong performance as Velma Von Tussle, the shallow, narcissistic, racist producer of the Corny Collins Show who tries to recapture her now-faded past glory as “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” Allie King as Velma’s daughter, Amber, embodies the stereotypical “mean girl.”  Of special note is Juliana DiBattista’s brief but delightful portrayal of a prison matron.

While singing “I Can Hear the Bells,” Tracy fantasizes about getting married to the local heartthrob in a dream sequence that is both beautifully romantic and hysterically funny.

Tracy’s best friend is the hyperactive, gum-chewing (“two packs a day”) Penny Pingleton, played for fun by Kate Hedges. She eventually escapes from her repressed mother, and discovers a love of dance and love for the talented young African-American dancer Seaweed (the talented Emmanuel Kyei-Baffour)

The host of Negro Day on the Corny Collins Show (and also Seaweed’s mother) is the golden-haired Motormouth Maybelle (the vocally astounding Tyler Goldsborough) who introduces herself as “Big, Blond, and Beautiful.” Later, Maybelle teaches the young people that, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” with the heartfelt “I Know Where I’ve Been”:

There’s a dream in the future
There’s a struggle we have yet to win
And there’s pride in my heart
‘Cause I know where I’m going and I know where I’ve been.

The showstopper comes when two very talented high school students capture the sweet, albeit off-beat, middle-aged romance of Tracy’s parents. The role of Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s “larger than life” mother, is typically played by a male actor, and Cameron Lafond’s rich and husky singing voice is just right for that character. Eli Elstein is appropriately quirky as Tracy’s father, Wilbur Turnblad, the owner of a joke and novelty store.  Wilbur is a man of modest means, but he loves and supports his wife and daughter and treats them like royalty. Edna and Wilbur show their love for each other by singing and dancing to a challenging number, “You’re Timeless to Me,” with Lafond and Elstein performing turns, dips, and lifts with confidence and ease.

Musical Director Mark Eisenhower leads a talented 20-piece student orchestra through a non-stop concert of 60’s-style rock and roll and rhythm and blues music. Ricky Stakem’s choreography runs the gamut from a ballet-dancing hot dog vendor to tap-dancing prison inmates with verve and vitality.

Set Designer Jessie Goldstein’s sets are varied and colorful, and the set changes are nothing short of amazing. Using partial blackouts, cross-fades, and spotlights, the stagehands and some ensemble members add and remove set pieces quietly, seamlessly, and inconspicuously—while the play continues without interruption.

The rousing finale “You Can’t Stop the Beat” reminds us that we can’t stop each new generation from finding its own style in music, in dance, in clothes—and in hair! More than that, we can’t stop the progress of social change and we can’t stop young people from leading that change.

And, you can’t stop yourself from enjoying a wonderful evening of theatre at Magruder High School’s production of Hairspray!

Running Time:  2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Hairspray continues at Magruder High School – 5939 Muncaster Mill Road, in Rockville, MD on Thursday, March 13 through Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 7 PM. Tickets are available at the door or may be reserved in advance by emailing MagruderBusiness@gmail.com.  The cost is $12 for adults and $8 for students.

Running Time:  2 hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Paul M. Bessel and Barbara Braswell
The most important thing about Paul M. Bessel is that on January 1, 2011, he married the most wonderful woman in the world, who helped him expand his enjoyment of theater. (The first show he remembers was Fiorello! when he was ten, wearing his first suit.) He and his wife now attend as many musicals, history seminars, and concerts as possible, sometimes as many as 4 or 5 a week, enjoying retirement and the joys of finding love late in life, and going on unconventionally romantic dates such as exhibits of mummies and lectures on parliamentary procedure. They live in Leisure World of Maryland and in addition to going to theaters as often as they can they are active together in community and local political organizations. Barbara Braswell grew up in Newport RI, where Jackie Kennedy once bought her an ice cream cone. She has been interested in theatre her whole life. While pursuing a 33-year career with the U.S. Department of Transportation — helping states build highways, including H-3 in Hawaii, where Barbara helped arrange for a shaman to bless the highway — she attended as many shows as possible on her own, with her late mother, and now with her husband. Now retired, she devotes a great deal of time to theatre, community and local political meetings, and having as much fun as possible.

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