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LOUDONVILLE — “Welcome to the ’60s!”
When the cast and crew of a Consortium Actors production of “Hairspray” delivered a strong performance on Thursday evening, Aug. 23, at 7 p.m., they wanted to not only showcase their theatrical prowess, but also to spread positive messages to the audience.
It was originally based on a same-named 1988 dance-comedy movie, which then was adapted into a multi-Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in 2002, and subsequently translated to the big screen as a 2007 Hollywood film, and most recently, a live TV adaptation in 2016 on NBC. This sold-out performance took place at Siena College’s Beaudoin Theater.
Set in 1962 in Baltimore, “Hairspray” focused on “chubby-faced” Tracy Turnblad (played by understudy Luca Verner) who dreamed to be a dancer on the Corny Collins, a popular almost-all-white teen dance TV show, which notably only has “Negro Day” once a month, where African-American dancers can shine. Tracy was initially supported by her comedically-hyper best friend, Penny Pingleton (Claire Flynn), her weight-insecure and hesitant mother, Edna Turnblad (Matthew Coviello), and her business owner of a father, Wilbur Turnblad (Devin Canavally).
She was also later encouraged by a cast of African-American characters, especially smooth skilled dancer Seaweed J. Stubbs (Josh Powell), the brief-yet-fierce Little Inez (Viktoria Pierre), and matriarch Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs (Rocky Tassie), who hosted the show’s “Negro Day.” Tracy later became emboldened to have the TV show celebrate integration, which was controversial at the time.
A main storyline was Tracy’s crush and eventual romance with Link Larkin (Jon Maltz), the show’s lead male dancer who dreamed of a recording career. However, Tracy faced opposition from Amber von Tussle (understudy Heather Frederick), a Caucasian fellow dancer who desires the in-show “Miss Teenage Hairspray” crown, and her racist and sizeist mother, Velma von Tussle (Kelly Sienkiewicz), who manages the show’s TV station, WYZT.
Luca Verner triumphantly channeled Tracy’s innocence, sheer optimism and bubbly attitude. In certain scenes, her voice notably grew feverishly excited when discussing her hopes of making it big on the Corny Collins Show, as well as becoming shiveringly-hopeful around her crush, Link. The audience could relate to her following her passion beyond her otherwise mundane everyday life at school and home, and she remained gleefully unbothered about the era’s racism, and the von Tussles’ dehumanizing remarks.
One of the cast’s strongest players was Claire Flynn as Penny Pingleton whose constant wide-eyed, unashamedly gum-chewing facial expressions made for great comic relief. She even hilariously had to swerve out of the way when background cast members danced around her, and stared longingly at Seaweed’s face, both of whom instantly falling in love upon first sight. Speaking of Seaweed, Josh Powell’s street-smart slickness and staccato hip movements easily showed why Penny immediately ogled him.
Matthew Coviello’s Edna Turnblad depiction won the audience over as she slowly overcame her shame with obesity, especially when she had a makeover during the much-celebrated “Welcome to the ’60s” number and even threatened to fistfight with the ignorant Velma. Her onstage husband, Devin Canavally’s Wilbur Turnblad, also shined particularly for being a crowd-pleaser and his never-ending love for his family.
Canavally was unafraid to push through with his purposely-low, almost-growling diction which comically contrasted from his brightly-colored wardrobe. It was like Willy Wonka but with an attractively masculine husky voice, which delighted the audience. Hence, the couple’s “You’re Timeless to Me” duet was a joy to watch as their unorthodox chemistry went into overdrive while they danced together harmoniously.
The aforementioned actresses for the von Tussles truly played up their constant dismissive attitudes to Tracy and her gang, with frequent bouts of bitchiness that made them appear like tormented kittens in need of attention. While Heather Frederick acted out Amber’s displeasure at Tracy’s very presence—Tracy was once literally mocked as “an unblemished blackhead”—and her support of integration, it was Kelly Sienkiewicz who earned the audience’s praise for her sheer vocals and exaggerated negative disposition when portraying Velma.
Despite the performance’s energetic catharsis and hopeful message, it slightly struggled with a few missteps.
Production-wise, the stage appeared rather small to handle the cast as a few actors bumped into each other during two dance scenes, some flubbed their lines, one member dropped his prop—a red bell during the “I Can Hear the Bells” sequence—and another background actor bumped into a table prop while trying to dance his way through the stage.
In addition, Rocky Tassie who played Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs did not get to fully project the character’s usual headstrong and fierce persona. Not playing up to her character’s first name, her voice sounded gentle instead, which did not exactly inspire rebellion and justice in the other characters’ minds.
It did conjure up the argument though that one does not necessarily have to be bombastic and extroverted to make change happen—Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks being great historical examples. If that characterization was what Tassie was truly going for, then she excelled indeed.
But there’s much more to celebrate with this performance. The musical numbers were a deluge of immeasurable euphoria.
Highlights included the hopeful introductory “Good Morning Baltimore” where Tracy introduced herself to be a happy-go-lucky and dream-pursuing teenager; the wistfully-romantic “Without Love” where much of the cast formed couples amid giddy smiles; the oh-so-relatable “I Can Hear the Bells” where a confused Penny watched as Tracy succumbed to her crush on Link; “Welcome to the ’60s” where Tracy pushed her agoraphobic mother to embrace the changing times and fashions, which resulted in both having an applause-inducing makeover; and the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” where everyone rejoiced and danced with abandon till the stage went dark.
One heart-wrenching tune was the message-heavy “I Know Where I’ve Been” where Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs organized a protest for racial equality through the Baltimore streets. As they sang in unison, a slideshow of real-life historical African-American individuals, who either fought for equality or suffered from racism, began which was hauntingly moving. Examples shown were photographs of the infamously-lynched 14-year-old Emmett Till, Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford, and activist Martin Luther King Jr.
Rocky Tassie herself was said to have “fought for Civil Rights and participated in sit-ins in the sixties,” according to a note by the musical’s directors, Antoinette Lawson and Sharon Zeto Paluch. “With courage and conviction, she and her fellow students shut down campus offices and demanded to have their voices heard. When she sings, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been,’ you better believe it — she does!”
The directors also wanted to dedicate the production to the African-American fighters for civil rights and victims of racism and intolerance.
Despite the musical’s overall positive nature, it impeccably addressed raw socio-political issues like racism, sizeism, materialism, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, white privilege and interracial relationships. Along with Tracy achieving her dreams of being a dancer on TV and enabling integration, these themes still matter today which helped make the musical relatable on a personal level.
In keeping with honoring past African-American historical figures, the performance was preceded by a little tribute to the late Aretha Franklin as audio of her 1967 version of “Respect” played, with much of the audience singing along.