Students Blow the Hair Off the Musical "Hairspray"
This year the Burlington City Performing Arts is ramping up their theater season with the colorful musical "Hairspray". Set in Baltimore circa 1962, the story revolves around pleasantly plump main character Tracy Turnblad and her dream to land a spot on the local teen dance program. Through sheer pluck and hopeful optimism Tracy wins an open spot on the show, becomes a celebrity to the "ordinary" folks and meets a rainbow coalition of minorities that are fighting their own fight for equal rights and for something more than their token one-day-a-month Negro day. While often considered too campy, Hairspray (and its movie iterations) provides quite a commentary on American Society and the impact of race in the 1960's.
David May, Cara Caruso and company took on quite a task to bring Hairspray to Burlington City. "This musical is an actor's challenge" commented Ms. Caruso. The stamina necessary for even the ensemble parts is enormous. "You are singing, dancing and acting throughout the whole show, mostly at the same time and with virtually no down time".
I caught the show on opening night Friday and then Saturday and I must admit was quite impressed. The complexity of the dance moves was dizzying considering none of the students are professionally trained dancers. Make no mistake---there are a lot of moving parts to this production and it is a credit to David Thomas May that he was able to get this level of quality from his performers. Mr. May's pit orchestra is flat out spectacular. Even if you are not a fan of musicals I recommend coming just to hear the music his crew is putting out. That alone is worth the price of admission.
But the thing that impressed me the most was the chemistry between each of the "couples". The way "Hairspray" is written pairs characters together and it is critical for the actors to have a good sense of each other for their scenes to work. Call it fate or perhaps just the luck of the casting, each of the major pairings for this musical were what really stood out. Edna and Wilbur Turnblad, (Tracy's parents) and played by Juliette Aquino and Julian Hawes-Bryant exude the comfortable intimacy of a long married couple that still truly love each other. They are alternately touching and hammy in their major number "You're Timeless to Me". The villainous mother daughter team, Velma and Amber Von Tussle are played with dysfunctional yet malicious glee by Erica Schiller and Killian Thomas. You need to come to the show at least twice to see their hilarious antics during the final music sequence "You Can't Stop the Beat". Tracy's best girl friend Penny and her new friend Seaweed, played by Shannon May and Derrick Moore, tear up the place with "Without Love" but not before setting off a stew of double entendre jokes and funny spit takes. Penny makes a second appearance in my couples list as Tracy's best friend. Dina O'Reilly and Shannon May set the bar every time they are on stage. From the opening sequence--- where Penny is not allowed to perspire, to her successful transformation, this couple is one of the most important to the success of the play. Mss. O'Reilly and May are just spot on with their portrayals of their characters and have a groove with each other that you would not expect from two actors that are still very young. Watch out for Ms. May in future productions. She steals every line and scene she's in and has a sharp sense of comedic timing that is also worth the price of admission.
Perhaps the most important of the these pairings is of course Tracy and her mother, Edna. Where Edna was concerned, I do have one minor criticism. Apparently the costumers went with a very red wig for Ms. Juliette. When she is in full makeup and costume she bears more than a passing resemblance to Lucille Ball. The resemblance is uncanny. The fact that she was almost as funny is no small feat to accomplish either. At any rate Mss. O'Reilly and Aquino also share some close moments that belie the fact these actors are still at the high school level. The lead up to "Mamma I'm a Big Girl Now" is terrific and the sight gags a scream. Ms. O'Reilly provides the strong backbone and a pretty good set of acting chops for everything else to happen and its fun to watch everyone else pile in and pile on.
This year the school allowed for additional performances. Hairspray will be running through March 21st, so you will still have a few more chances to see this free wheeling, fun loving musical before it too dances into history.
Music Booster Fundraising: