The Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Hairspray lacks polish from what seems to be, in the chorus roles, a fairly green cast. Yet even though that softens the strength of the production, it doesn't seem to diminish any of the fun. I had an incredibly good time watching Saturday night's performance, and while the entire show isn't quite worth the standing ovation it received, the final song, "You Can't Stop the Beat," does deserve that special accolade intended for exceptional performances.
This 1960s-style musical - with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan - is based on John Waters' 1988 film of the same name. Directed and choreographed here by Jim Hesselman, the stage version actually follows that film rather closely, unlike the film version of the musical stage version of the original film version. (I just love saying that.)
Tracy Turnblad is our heroine, a pleasantly plump teen who lands a spot on the local TV dance program The Corny Collins Show, and uses her instant celebrity to campaign for the end of segregation, singing some of the most memorable songs in recent Broadway history along the way. And handling that "hair-hopper" role is Kristin Gilbert, who attacks it with the energy and amicability of Rikki Lake from the original film and, with my gratitude, improves upon the slightly uppity tone of Nikki Blonsky's more recent take on Tracy.
John Payonk also opts to avoid mimicking the movie version of the musical. While John Travolta attempted to add sincerity to his Edna, ignoring the humor of a man playing the female role, Payonk understands that drag is the point of it. Edna is amusing because we know it's a man playing a woman, and the writers know it's a man playing a woman (writing jokes for him/her to say with that in mind), and Payonk has a great time with the conception, playing up the parts that are funny because of his masculinity without taking the character over the top.
Designer Gregory Hiatt (whose work is impressive in show after show) does acknowledge the film in his costumes - Tracy's getups especially. Hiatt understands that there's an iconic look to the role and doesn't ignore it. He does, however, use creative license in his costumes for the show's final number, filling the stage with so many sparkles and sequins that I think the stage lights could be turned off and we'd still see the actors clearly. Other wonderful designs here include Edna's climactic gown and Velma Von Tussle's 18th Century dress, my favorite of Hiatt's efforts.
As for Velma herself, she's portrayed by Heather Beck, one of three Hairspray cast members who demonstrate above-and-beyond-polished professional talent. Beck, who was stunning as Patsy Cline in Circa '21's A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline last year and equally impressive in the theatre's All Shook Up earlier this year, showcases strong stage presence and control of her character, whom she's obviously made the effort to flesh out. Marty McNamee is just as absorbing as Corny Collins, with his television-ready smile, gorgeous singing voice, and nuanced line deliveries. Jennifer Weingarten, meanwhile, stands out as Penny Pingleton, Tracy's nerdy, gum-chewing friend with the mother who punishes her for anything and everything. While Weingarten was fine in All Shook Up, she's radiant here, with her somewhat slapstick-y comedy and vocal-inflection choices, and blossoms into a sexy "checkerboard chick" at the end, unleashing a strong, bringing-down-the-house voice full of sultry soul.
Deidra Grace brings similar soul to her Motormouth Maybelle, and Kristen Jeter lends spunk to Maybelle's daughter, Little Inez. Blake Garrett couldn't be more likable as Seaweed, while Heather Herkelman is good at playing up the snobbish, biased bitchiness of Amber Von Tussle.
Set designer Stephanie Gerckens also impresses with her employment of a rotating set, allowing for almost-instant changes to three separate locations, and Hesselman delivers high-energy, full-of-fun choreography - with which the chorus members, in general, seemed to struggle on Saturday, not properly extending their arms, and dancing with slightly sloppy movements. Because its ensemble was more polished, I still think All Shook Up is the best effort, so far, of Circa's current season. Hairspray, however, is no less fun and, to me, the ideal summer show, definitely worth seeing for the thrill and spectacle of it all.
For tickets and information, call (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visit Circa21.com.