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Saturday, July 02, 2016

You’ll Flip Your Wig at Toby’s 'Hairspray'

Most of us can relate to being an underdog during points in our lives. Overcoming challenges can be fulfilling and exhilarating especially if the results are unexpected.  So when we see others do it, we cheer and cheer hard because we can relate; we’ve been there.  Who doesn’t love underdogs who triumph against the odds?  #
Photo: JeriTidwell Photography
Hairspray, which is playing at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia for the next two months, is a vibrant feel-good musical that allows the audience to fight the fight alongside the underdogs.  Under the meticulous direction of Mark Minnick, this Broadway-caliber production blends high-quality singing, dancing, comedy, dazzling costumes, and tackles serious social issues to boot.  #hocoarts
Mr. Minnick, who is also the show’s accomplished choreographer, is blessed to work with an incredible cast who clearly enjoy themselves on Toby’s in-the-round stage as much as the audience does.  The technical crew, creative team, and the musical direction of Ross Scott Rawlings enhance the performances even more.

Hairspray with a score by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, based on the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray, copped eight Tony Awards in 2003. 
The songs from the opening iconic number “Good Morning Baltimore” to the final “You Can’t Stop the Beat” are eclectic. From 60’s-style dance music to rhythm and blues—upbeat high-tempo to soft emotional ballads—the music and lyrics are outstanding.

Nineteen sixty-two Baltimore is the backdrop for the story that centers on the main underdog, plucky Tracy Turnblad played marvelously by Christie Graham.  In most versions of Hairspray, Tracy is “pleasantly plump.”  In this production, Ms. Graham is not as rotund as other Tracy Turnblads but her level of talent overcomes that slight inconsistency and is never a detriment.  Her mother, however, Edna, a drag role played with panache by the ultra-talented Lawrence B. Munsey, is a plus size for sure.
Photo: JeriTidwell Photography

Against the odds, our heroine Tracy seeks to be a dancer on the local Corny Collins TV show and winds up being a star, successfully covets the heartthrob Link Larkin in an unlikely match, and rallies against racial segregation.
There are many clever references to the Baltimore area and culture in 1962.  On the night this production was reviewed there were an unusual number of young people in the audience.  Quips about the Gabor Sisters, Eddie Fisher and others from that era may have blown over their heads like misaimed squirts from a container of hairspray.  But for the adults who remember that time, they hit the mark.

Though Hairspray brings to life the good times of that period, nostalgic it’s not.  Baltimore was a segregated city then, and racism that is associated with that blight, becomes the main force in the show.  In the end, there are heroes galore as The Corny Collins Show is ultimately integrated led by the persistent Tracy who had been jailed for being a “rabble rouser.”
Toby’s resident performers Jeffrey Shankle as Corny Collins, Lawrence B. Munsey as homebody Edna Turnblad,  David James as Tracy’s encouraging father and Edna’s adoring husband Wilmer Turnblad, and Heather Marie Beck as one of the villains, Velma Von Tussle all reprise their roles from the production of Hairspray at Toby’s Columbia six years ago.  With much experience under their belts since then, it is no surprise they handle their roles with stunning proficiency and flair. 
Mr. Munsey, in particular, turns in a tour-de-force performance.  Mr. Shankle is perfectly cast for his role.  Darren McDonnell, playing several “authority figure” roles, also shines with the appropriate dose of campiness.

Sophie Schulman who plays a rather dim Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s closest friend, is excellent and serves up many of the comedic lines.  Penny falls in love with African-American Seaweed J. Stubbs played by Andre Hinds who has a big part in the integration effort. 

Photo: JeriTidwell Photography
Mr. Hinds, using his lithe physique, is an exceptional dancer with grace and power.  He sparkles with is jaw-dropping flips and spins during several of the dance numbers.  And he can act quite well displaying ample passion without going over the top.
Overall, the choreography directed by Mr. Minnick is exceptional, high-energy and precise.  The members of the talented ensemble execute the dance sequences superbly.  As an example, the number “The Big Dollhouse” that opens up the Second Act is sensational in its choreography.

Handsome Justin Calhoun as the heartthrob Link who is one of the protagonists, plays the role to the hilt with his swagger and occasional preening.  Possessing a solid voice as well, Mr. Calhoun shines in his duet with Ms. Graham in “It Takes Two.”

The Turnblad couple played by Mr. Munsey and Mr. James reminisce in “You’re Timeless to Me” and  is one of the show’s many highlights. The ballad is an adorable love song oozing with emotion and camp that will make you smile. These two outstanding performers nailed it.
Another highlight and probably worth the price of admission besides the scrumptious buffet is the performance by Kelli Blackwell as Motormouth Maybelle, the mother of Seaweed and Little Inez (played by cute Nowelle Robinson).  Her powerful rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” whereby she  recalls the fight for equality is almost guaranteed to make your eyes well up in tears.     

Another strong performance is turned in by Gabriella DeLuca as Amber Von Tussle, the reigning Teen Queen vying for the title “Miss Hairspray 1962” and Tracy’s chief rival.  #hocoarts
The Dynamites is a background singing group that adds a Motown feel to the show.  Talented vocalists Renata Hammond, Ashley Johnson and Samantha McEwen comprise the group.  I can imagine Ed Sullivan introducing them on his show: “Right here on our stage…the sensational Dynamites!”

Other talented members of the company who make this production work so well include Sean McComas, Rachel Kemp, AJ Whittenberger, Erica Clare, Joey Ellinghaus, Amanda Kaplan, Coby Kay Callahan, Solomon Parker III, and Gerald Jordon.
Mr. Munsey along with Mary Quinn designed the glorious costumes that are right on target especially that red satiny gown Mr. Munsey wears at show’s end.  With tongue and cheek, he said, “I made it myself.”  Oh, and those bountiful, big-hair wigs!  Love ‘em.

The set designed by David A. Hopkins that featured photos of Baltimore houses along the theater’s walls aided by Lynn Joslin’s lighting design and a multitude of props provide effective scene changes and texture.
 I would like to see a prototype of a TV camera used during the Corny Collins Show sequences similar to the one employed at Toby’s production of Memphis in 2014 to give it a TV studio identity.

This production of Hairspray succeeds on all fronts that entertains and delivers a powerful message.  Mr. Minnick directs these extraordinary performers with great skill and is a sure-fire crowd pleaser.  This is a must-see show without question. 
You can’t stop the beat, and why would you want to?

Running time. Approximately two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.
Hairspray at Toby’s The Dinner Theatre of Columbia runs through September 4.  For tickets and information, call 410-730-8311 or visit tobysdinnertheatre.com or ticketmaster.com.

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