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At the beginning of each semester, NCSU's University Theatre occupies the Talley Student Union's Stewart Theatre to open their new season with a full-throated production of a major Broadway musical. This semester's selection is Hairspray, a whoppingly large and flashy number about a gang of high school students in 1962 at odds with each other over who should get to be on the local American Bandstand-like TV program, The Corny Collins Show. Director John C. McIlwee, in his introduction to the show, called it "fun, silly, and marvelous." And it certainly fits that bill. But the Hairspray phenomenon, silly though it may be in places, is a juggernaut of a story that has flown through several versions of its "corny" tale, including this present, musical version that wowed on Broadway.
McIlwee uses the wonderfully complete machinations of Stewart Theatre to give his students the idea of what it's like to work in a full-scale, no-holds-barred musical in a huge and fully- equipped theater. And what an opportunity Hairspray provides! This show can be a director's dream or nightmare, depending on how the diverse and challenging aspects of the show mesh.
The cast of Hairspray is huge; McIlwee cast a total of three dozen students — each one of them a singer/dancer. And that's just onstage. There's also a 13-piece orchestra, led by musical director Matt Hodge; a backstage crew the size of which dwarfs the cast; the time necessary for learning the music, then the dancing, which drives the show; and the costume fittings and make-up rituals for 36 people. So, when everything works, it is indeed a director's dream, but if it doesn't, well, Murphy rules supreme. In a very real sense, the notion of the director as traffic cop certainly applies to this scale of production.
The fact that this particular production of Hairspray is dynamic, infectious, and thoroughly entertaining is a tip of the hat to over 200 people, most of whom are doing it out of the love of theatre and little else. Fun and games it might seem, but being in the business of entertainment is hard work and a serious commitment right from the start.
Hairspray's protagonist, Tracy Turnblad (masterfully played by junior zoology major Fara Marin), is trying to get to the place she must be to learn the above lesson; it is her "lifelong" dream to get to be a part of the cast of a local TV show that all her fellow high school students watch, The Corny Collins Show. She has spent all of her free time learning the songs and moves necessary to dance on that show. But Tracy has a problem, one that, to her mom at least, is an insurmountable one. She is not a pretty little thing, like all the girls on the show; she is overweight, a big girl, and not what most boys would call pretty. Nevertheless, when a slot opens up on the show for a new dancer, Tracy skips school to try out.
The show is not long on plot, despite some very interesting twists. This is mostly a song and dance show, with the plot driven by these songs. We get a total of 25 songs, each with a soloist, most backed by the cast, all of which have been superbly choreographed by Tito Hernandez and every one of which was deftly executed by this cast. There were, of course, minor bobbles — every show has them — but this reviewer only caught one or two, and they were neatly covered by the cast. This production was a finely tuned machine, and it purred along with little more than an occasional minor hiccup.
A brief aside here acknowledges the serious side of Hairspray's message. In 1962 Baltimore, the word was segregation. And in the cast of The Corny Collins Show, the color was uniformly white. Once Tracy has accomplished — miraculously, it seems — to get herself onto the show, she decides that, "It's just not right that we can't all dance together." The idea of whites and blacks performing together on the show is anathema to the producer, Velma (junior Lauren Knott), and her idea of what is correct. A big part of what Tracy feels she must do is overturn this antiquated notion.
Tracy finds a fellow protagonist in a friend named Seaweed (senior Jordan Williams), a black student she meets in detention. We also meet Seaweed's mother, a local celebrity known as Motormouth Maybelle (junior Riki Dows), who runs a record store in the uptown district. The three of them spearhead an attempt to get African Americans onto The Corny Collins Show.
Highlights come fast and furious, and some very gut-busting R&B music is written into the show. We also hear from Tracy's folks, mother Edna (junior Isaiah Lewis – the part is traditionally played by a male actor), who is herself a large woman, and her hubby Wilbur (sophomore Carl Staub), a little guy with a great big heart. These two, in addition to adding their singing voices to many of the tunes, have a terrific moment in Act II with the heartfelt duet "You're Timeless to Me." Maybelle teaches both Edna and Tracy that it's good to be "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful." And Maybelle takes the lead in "You Can't Stop the Beat," the show's finale.
This is a production that rivals a professional one, and that fact has gotten out ahead of opening night. We were told beforehand that the entire run of Hairspray is sold out! Call anyway, there might be waiting lists and there are always people who reserve seats but find they cannot attend.
Hairspray continues through Sunday, February 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.