By Colin Douglas
“The Nicest Kids in Town” are teasing their hair, singing and dancing up a storm while striking a blow for equal rights in BrightSide Theatre’s latest production, a bang-up, non-stop rock ’n rolling rendition of the Tony Award-winning Hairspray that makes audiences want to get up and boogie down the aisles.
Co-directed by Artistic Director Jeffrey Cass and Barry R. Norton, with choreography by Jeni Donahue, this production may be the best musical this company has ever presented over its seven seasons of professional productions. The musical thoroughly entertains while capturing all the spirit and social relevance of Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan’s script, as adapted from the John Waters’ 1988 film that inspired this musical.
Set in 1962 Baltimore, Tracy Turnblad, a sweetly sincere, pleasantly plump high school teenager of blue collar parents, is an optimistic outcast among her more svelte, affluent, Teen Beat-influenced peers. After being treated unfairly while auditioning for “The Corny Collins Show,” a local American Bandstand-like TV program, Tracy begins a fight for equality and racial integration. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s infectious score sounds great, thanks to Musical Director Sarah Giordano, and as played by keyboardist Jon Neuhoff’s talented 8-member orchestra, and as sung and danced by this gifted company.
The cast is led by kewpie doll, ball-of-fire dancing machine, Paige Matteson as Tracy, and Cass, done up in dragulated splendor, as her plus-sized, agoraphobic mother, Edna. Matteson employs all her assets, from a dynamite voice to an infectious light-up-the-room smile, to win audiences’ hearts. From her rousing, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” which opens the show and sets the tone for the entire production, to her heartfelt, inventively staged fantasy number, “I Can Hear the Bells,” Matteson leaves no doubt that she owns this show.
Cass is brilliant. He wisely resists the urge to make his Edna a drag queen caricature, instead imbuing her with dignity and honesty as he creates a truly loving mother and wife who’s battling her own insecurities. This production certainly has a winning duo in these two appealing actors, supported by an accomplished and energetic ensemble of triple threats.
The “Big, Blonde & Beautiful” Qiana C. McNary, making her show-stopping BrightSide debut, is a red hot mama in the role of Motormouth Maybelle. She stops the show cold with her soulful rendition of the musical’s 11th hour anthem to equality, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Stepping into the role of her spirited son Seaweed, Deshaun Peters sets the stage afire with his “Run and Tell That.” And young Cydney Washington sparkles in every scene as his baby sister, Little Inez.
The handsome and charming Levi Skoog offers a strong, star-turning performance as the singing, dancing, hunky heartthrob, Link Larkin, who’s the object of Tracy’s affection. His sultry “It Takes Two,” is velvety smooth and peppered with more than a few hilarious double entendres. Effervescent and always delightfully captivating, Shaina Summerville returns to BrightSide, shining sweetly as a perfectly priceless Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s naive, best friend.
The dynamic duo of Melissa Crabtree and Michelle Bolliger are as funny as they are villainous, playing TV producer (and former “Miss Baltimore Crabs”) Velma Von Tussle and her spoiled, self-entitled Barbie Doll daughter, Amber. Together they chew up the scenery with relish, while the handsome, slick and suave John Salomone actually rules the stage as TV host Corny Collins. In the role of Tracy’s father, Wilbur, the owner of the Hardy-Har-Har novelty shop, well-known area character actor Jim Heatherly pulls out all the stops. He brings sweet, old-fashioned sentimentality and humor to his scenes with Edna and Tracy. Together with Cass, they make their duet, “You’re Timeless to Me” into a heartfelt, romantic hit.
The production’s technical support, however, is at times uneven, at least on opening night. On the positive side, the show is enhanced by a terrific wardrobe of colorful period costumes and an array of outrageous wigs, courtesy of Shana Hall and Jessica Torres. They add humor, help establish a feeling of authenticity for time and place, while providing a spectacular, splashy “Welcome to the 60’s.” Brandon Lewis’ inventive, detailed mobile set is vibrant and practical. But sometimes the roving units become annoyingly hung up on a backstage curtain. This problem can be easily remedied for future performances. And Adam R. Jezi-Sikorski’s colorful lighting is fine, but so often doesn’t serve the production very well, leaving the talented cast performing in the shadows. It’s not clear if this was due to defective instruments, focusing errors or problems with the light board operator. Equally problematic was the production’s uneven sound execution causing some of the microphones to deliver feedback.
Thankfully, these technical problems can be easily fixed, which will make this polished, highly professional production shine even brighter. In what is essentially a contemporary twist on the Cinderella story, this production is a delicious, delightfully infectious, toe-tapping musical that’s more than merely entertaining. The play advocates the importance of the need for achieving racial harmony while presenting a strong case against bullying. It also offers a positive message about being yourself and owning the talents you possess.
The whole evening simply overflows with fun. There’s comedy, optimism and a positive message, along with a great score and excellent performances all wrapped together. The show opens with the cast bidding patrons a rousing, “Good Morning Baltimore,” and concludes with the peppy and potent “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” This high-spirited final production to the company’s seventh successful season is the reason that BrightSide Theatre has become one of Chicagoland’s best kept secrets.
BrightSide Theatre presents “Hairspray” through June 24 at Meiley-Swallow Hall of North Central College, 31 S. Ellsworth, Naperville. More information and tickets are available here.