BEVERLY, Mass. – You can’t stop the beat with “Hairspray” at Bill Hanney’s North Shore Music Theatre.
This story about Tracy Turnblad, an enthusiastic high schooler with big dreams and stature, is an inspiration to us all.
Despite being an unconventional candidate for television in a society that favors the skinny, Tracy doesn’t hesitate for one second to pursue her dream of being on her favorite program, the “Corny Collins Show”, with the dancers she idolizes, in particular teen heartthrob Link Larkin (Zane Phillips). Not only does she get the dream job and guy, but she utilizes her passion to break social and cultural barriers and fuel the integration of Black dancers into the show and “make every day Negro Day.” And she even risks imprisonment to do it. There’s more to her than big hair and an aspiration for stardom.
Spiral rainbow lights rose at “curtain” the day after Halloween and then the round stage opened to elevate a bed dead center and reveal Tracy (Brooke Shapiro) waking up for a lively “Good Morning Baltimore” opening number. Shapiro is a ball of energy, bursting with positivity as the optimistic and dream-filled teen.
True to herself and following her heart with conviction from start to finish, Tracy loves her home and community. Her room doubles as the city and her bed as the bus, showing how much Baltimore is a part of her.
Shapiro replicates the youth of the classic Tracy vocally, though sometimes playing the character voice causes a strained sound and compromises tone for her and other cast members. Her guttural, staccato “oh, oh, oh” seem to have a humorous intention of parody in the familiar song, but it loses the comedic effect when done every time. However, it got some laughs for the first few, as well as when Blake Hammond mimics it in a cry as Tracy’s mother, Edna.
That role is almost always played by a man (you’ll remember John Travolta in the movie) and greatly adored and comical. Hammond’s husky, yet jolly Edna was a crowd favorite. He pairs well with the more petite, jovial Philip Hoffman, of Broadway acclaim, as Tracy’s father, Wilbur. The Turnblads are role model parents as loving, self-starting small business owners – Edna with her in-home laundry business and Wilbur with his basement Har-De-Har Hut joke shop.
Edna grapples a lot with getting by in a business that sustains her family’s livelihood in the shadow of a dream of fashion design she never fulfilled. She is a shut-in who is ashamed of her robust body and doesn’t really go out in public much. That’s why numbers like “Welcome to the ‘60s” – when Tracy is trying to get Edna out of the house – and the love sequence “You’re Timeless to Me” – when Wilbur professes his adoration for Edna despite her size – are so endearing and moving.
This play is as much about Edna and the Black community finding self-value and breaking through societal and racial barriers to declare to Baltimore and the world that they matter as it is about Tracy coming of age and following her dreams. Actually, I would argue that’s the bigger story.
“Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” is a song that unifies even Tracy and her arch nemesis Amber Von Tussle (Marie Eife) as the two stand up to their mothers in generational defiance. Eife has chutzpah and feistiness as the mean girl of the show, the spitting image of Merril Peiffer, who is very well cast as her mother, Velma Von Tussle, the racist producer of the “Corny Collins Show.” Peiffer belongs on Broadway, dominating the stage in presence and vocals in her catchy solo, “Miss Baltimore Crabs.”
Christina Emily Jackson is also featured in that number as Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s best friend, cowering alongside her prejudiced, frightening mother, Prudy (Cheryl McMahon) who will stop at nothing to tie her up. The contrast in that pairing is both alarming in the way Penny is treated and comical because it is so ridiculous.
McMahon actually has a lot of fierce female cameos in the show that are laced with comedy. She also plays the quirky gym teacher and the aggressively funny prison matron.
Penny has one of the largest character arches in the show, going from nerdy, ditzy, and anxious to confidently beautiful and strong. It’s a Sandy from “Grease” sort of transformation. Wait until you see her at the end.
Jackson steals the spotlight in the role. While her character may be a nervous wreck, she is sheer perfection from her vocal prowess to complete character embodiment and physical comedy. Her consistently stiff, awkward body movements and hunched posture work well.
Penny and Seaweed J. Stubbs (Stephen Scott Wormley), Tracy’s detention friend who introduces her to new dance moves and soul music, are an oddly sweet couple and it’s exciting to see what develops between them. Wormley’s swagger and tenor are smooth as silk. He sure has pep in his step.
Zane Phillips also plays the lady’s man role well as Link, managing to excel in chemistry with both Eife’s Amber and Shapiro’s Tracy despite how vastly different their characters are. He could easily just be a sweet-talking player, but Phillips gives him depth and compassion. You really believe he does care and genuinely means everything he says. Plus the skillful singing and dancing doesn’t hurt things!
Altamiece Carolyn Cooper is a show-stopping gospel queen as Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed’s mother. She inspires confidence in the other women portrayed in the production and is a key motivator their rebellion against segregation and prejudice. She got a lot of applause for holding her high notes too. The Dynamites (Taylor Broadard, Ebony Deloney, Quiantae Thomas) and Little Inez (Nazarria Workman) are also vocal powerhouses.
Marty McNamee is a natural showman as the charismatic, hip Corny Collins, also an ambassador for Tracy’s racial integration initiative on his show. He delivers a lot of good one-liners as he tolerates the intolerable.
Michaela Bolt (Shelly, ensemble member, and understudy for Tracy) also has an impressive riff right before Tracy auditions for the Corny Collins show.
Milton Granger does wonders with the North Shore Music Orchestra, really working the crowd going into the second act. The orchestra sounded great and so did the chorus, though sometimes they did overpower the soloists.
With a theater in the round, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. Though it does mean that the actors will always have their backs to someone. Overall though, I don’t think the audience missed a beat.
And, of course, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” was a crowd favorite. The show closes as lively as it opens.
Full of pep, pizazz, luminance, and brightly colored set pieces and costumes, this production exudes joy and fabulous hair while tackling complex issues of race, body image, television, and prejudice in ‘60s Baltimore that still resonate today. You can’t help but leave in a good mood with something to ponder.
“Hairspray” runs through Nov. 11. Don’t miss “the nicest kids in town” at this beautiful theater. More information on tickets and the production are available on www.nsmt.org.