True to its name, “Hairspray,” Southwestern College’s first musical in seven years, stuck. It was a beehive of fun, music and dance stacked high and proud.
John Waters’ musical traveled to the era of the mashed potato where the slogan “the higher the hair, the closer to God” was gospel.
A gleeful audience saw what many had only read about or heard in history class, the death throes of Jim Crow in the shadows of the Civil Rights Revolution.
“Hairspray” takes place in the “Swinging Sixties” at the height of Martin Luther King and JFK, where segregation was prevalent and appearance was paramount. It chronicles the life of stout high school student Tracy Turnblad (a terrific Shelley Courchaine) and her dream of being on the Corny Collins Show. Turnblad and best friend Penny Pingleton (Alex King) audition, but she is turned down based on her weight and her too-liberal response to a question regarding racial integration. Nevertheless, she bumps into teenage heartthrob Link Larkin (Israel Valdivia) whom she falls head over heels for and later convinces to help her integrate the show.
Courchaine seemed comfortable during musical numbers, but less so while acting. Her powerhouse vocals, though, more than compensated. She was a sassy bombshell who supercharged every number she sang.
Valdivia struggled a bit with his lower range, but nailed the tenor parts. He had the charm required for the part of Link Larkin, something that can’t be taught.
Courchaine and Valdivia had strong chemistry, but Alex King as Pingleton and Kevin Burroughs as Seaweed were the power couple. Even with a knife near her face in the hands of Burroughs, King plays a young girl clearly in love.
While the leads were great, it was the muscular supporting cast that stole the show.
Sticking with Waters’ cross-dressing tradition, Tracy’s mother was played by a male actor, as this case the formidable Mitchell Horne. His Mrs.Turnblad was earth, funny and cool. Miguel Ramirez, playing Wilbur Turnblad, worked well with Horne.
Lauren Martinez as villainous Velma von Tussle was the perfect choice. She was the right combination of snarky, prideful and just plain rude. Velma was easy to dislike, which means Martinez was spot on.
Director Katie Rodda skillfully guided her talented production team, which made the Mark O’Donnell-Thomas Meehan musical timely and relevant rather than a paunchy period piece.
Brilliant set designer Mike Buckley and his students created a series of colorful and retro rolling sets that brought a cheery and scintillating mood to each scenes. Sets were vivid and delightful, clever and enriching. They were a black and white TV show in living color that framed the action like a worn Motorola with rabbit ear antennae.
Deborah Nevins’ orchestra was the backbone of the show, playing behind a sheer polk-a-dot curtain, present but not unobtrusive. This talented assortment of musicians could do soft, slow and sincere as well as flat out rock when it was time to dance.
Dance numbers choreographed by Dana Maue were stylish, energetic and true to the era. “You Can’t Stop the Beat” was so high energy it seemed the cast had drained the espresso machine. It left the audience exhausted. Group dance routines were exceptional.
Vocal music instructor Michelle Tolvo-Chan had her singers on pitch and flawless throughout. Her background as a nationally-ranked show choir director was apparent as the singers were larger-than-life, perfectly synched and presentational wonders.
“Nicest Kids in Town,” “You Can’t Stop the Beat” and “Run and Tell That” were the night’s best numbers. “Nicest Kids in Town” was a vivacious song with simple choreography that proved again that less can be more. “You Can’t Stop the Beat” was the show’s grand finale and it was grand. “Run and Tell That” was a dance spectacle that set a great tone for the production.
Laughter was widespread throughout the night thanks to the antics on stage and one-liners like, “Where do you go after Special Ed?” Answer: “Congress.” An uncredited bit by The Flasher nearly stole the show.
Southwestern College was known in the 1980s and ‘90s for its stunning musicals, and “Hairspray” was enough to make audience members wonder why there was a seven-year gap since the last one. In a community rich with musical talent, including national champion high school show choirs, marching bands and musical theatre, SWC has done its students a disservice by neglecting this uniquely American art form.
The cast and crew of the “Hairspray” did more than put on a great show they laid down a marker for the leadership of this college. Reinvest in the performing arts and the dividends will dazzle you.