Adventure Theatre and ATMTC Academy presented their student production of Hairspray over the weekend. Young artists, ranging from grades four through twelve, hit the stage with all the energy and professionalism of seasoned performers in the musical comedy about equality, acceptance, and believing in yourself.
Hairspray is a high-energy show that focuses on the racial tension of the 1960s, while also shedding light on body shaming and the ignorance of judging a book by its cover. The style of the show is camp at its finest and includes rhythm and blues and dance-style music from the era.
Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell wrote the book for the Broadway musical, with lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, who also composed the music.
The creative team – Sherion Cosby (Director), Wayne Chadwick (Musical Director), Shawn Cosby (Choreographer), Neil McFadden (Sound Designer), Jason Arnold (Lighting Designer), and Moyenda Kulemeka (Costume Designer)- worked together to make the production look dynamite. April Joy Vester’s Stage Design used a primarily open stage with platform levels and some portable items that rolled on and off at various times.
The story follows Tracy Turnblad (Peyton Aronow), a plump high-school girl, who is obsessed with having the biggest hair and The Corny Collins Show, a local program featuring “the nicest kids in town” – meaning the thin, pretty, white kids.
At the top of the show, Tracy wakes up singing “Good Morning, Baltimore” as she gets ready and heads off to school. Peyton has a powerful voice and her upbeat and energetic attitude is perfect for the role. Tracy is all parts positivity and joy, as she sings about the rats and the flasher she sees on the street.
After school, Tracy rushes home to watch The Corny Collins Show with her best friend Penny Pingleton (Lottie Guidi), where they learn that the show is looking for a new cast member. Guidi is spot-on as the awkward and perky Penny. Her devotion and support of Tracy is sugary sweet, matching the lollipop that she has throughout the entire show.
At the auditions, Tracy bumps into Link Larkin (Jonah Schwartz), the dreamboat star of the music show, and instantly falls in love (remember, camp!), but is shunned because of her size by the show’s producer, Velma Von Tussle (Nicole Jones). Velma sings of her past glory in “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” as the other girls in the studio snicker-including Velma’s bratty and overly-ambitious daughter, Amber (Taylor Rand). Velma is a vicious, racist, conceited woman, trying to achieve her dream of stardom through her daughter, and Jones plays her wickedness perfectly. Velma dismisses Tracy and a young black girl, Little Inez (Loren Lowery), without even allowing them the chance to perform.
Back at school in detention, a place Tracy frequently finds herself because of her “monumental” hair that literally impedes any students sitting behind her from learning, she meets Seaweed J. Stubbs (Nathan Butts), a young black man overflowing with charisma. Seaweed’s mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Adara Lowery) is the host of the monthly “Negro Day” on Corny’s show. Butts exudes Seaweed’s chill vibe and magnetic charm. He shows Tracy some of his moves, which ultimately land her the spot on the TV show, when Corny Collins (Chris Polio) sees her in action at the school’s Sophomore Hop.
Tracy’s mother, Edna (Eli Schwartz), a heavy woman who runs a laundry business out of her home, is initially nervous about her daughter auditioning because of the cruelty of people to larger girls but is ecstatic to learn that Tracy made the show. Mother and daughter sing the fun and fabulous “Welcome to the 60s” after Tracy encourages her homebody mom to come out on the town with her and get dolled up by Mr. Pinky (Matt Brady), a store owner, with clothes for plus-sized women, who chooses Tracy to be his new spokesmodel.
There are not enough words to describe how much I enjoyed Eli Schwartz as Edna. The character is traditionally a drag role and ATMTC’s production did not disappoint. Edna is a relatively simple and shy character, but she is full of kindness. Schwartz’s Edna masters the balance of physical comedy, an endearing naivete, and staunch love and support of her family.
In an unexpected development, Link and Tracy develop a mutual attraction, much to the chagrin of Amber, Link’s girlfriend. Jonah Schwartz has a mesmerizing confidence, backed up by his swoon-worthy voice, which he gets to show off in the song “It Takes Two.” Link is fundamentally a good guy in a bad situation and Schwartz does a great job portraying Link’s struggle to do the right thing.
There are several layers of conflict in the musical and Taylor Rand’s spoiled Amber, is one of them. Her jealousy and rage over Tracy’s unexpected rise to stardom and connection with Link is palpable. Amber is a monster of her mother’s making and Rand plays the outraged spotlight-hog with an intense bitterness that resembles a cat, with claws out, ready to rip its prey to pieces.
The main conflict of the show, though, is the racial divide. Tracy longs to make every day “Negro Day” and can’t understand why everyone can’t just dance together. Seaweed takes his new friends to see his mom, Motormouth Maybelle, where Tracy persuades the group to march on the studio and demand integration.
Adara Lowery’s Motormouth crushes the song “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful,” where she convinces Edna and Tracy’s father Wilbur (Sam Gatica) to join in the march. Motormouth always speaks in verse and must be played carefully to avoid seeming silly, and Lowery does an impeccable job giving the character a proud and commanding personality, which compliments her thick and rich voice.
Motormouth also sings about her long fight for equality in “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Lowery’s passion and determination is inspiring and she brought the house down with the power of her voice.
Escalations upon escalations occur – as they do in theater – and all’s well that ends well – as it is in campy musicals.
Seaweed and Penny become another unlikely, but adorably-perfect, couple. Butts’ smoothness, with Guidi’s gawkiness, is a match made in comedy-heaven, and the whole audience roots for them as Seaweed saves Penny from the grips of her uptight and overbearing mother, appropriately named Prudy (Allie O’Connor).
And not to be overlooked is the lovely song “You’re Timeless to Me,” sung by Wilbur and Edna. Wilbur is another loveable character, who Gatica plays with goofiness and exhibits a sincere dedication to Edna. The couple is about as bubblegum as they come and is the picture of pure acceptance, individuality, and hope.
And last but not least, the show requires an incredibly strong ensemble, and the ATMTC cast brought it all to the table. The musical closes with the upbeat, company number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” which is my personal favorite. The villains have been overcome and those fighting for what is right win the day. The message of the song is heart-warming and optimistic promising that, in the end, the growing wave of support toward social justice will win out.
Hairspray is a fun-tastic show with a strong social commentary that it unabashedly drives home. Many musicals with political points are criticized for being too preachy, but Hairspray couches the moral in silly camp, gorgeous music, and loveable characters that make it an uplifting and joyous lesson to be learned.
Adventure Theatre’s Student Production of Hairspray is a blast and a great testament to the quality of education these young artists are getting at the ATMTC Academy. With the help of their strong production team, the kids succeeded in presenting a fully polished and talent-packed professional show.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 10-minute intermission.