REVIEW: “Hairspray” is Full-Throttle Explosion of Sheer Joy on Greenville Little Theatre Stage

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BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

The Greenville Little Theatre season finale “Hairspray” is undeniably a BIG hit from its gorgeous opening number “Good Morning Baltimore” ‑ one of the most beautiful openings I have seen all season long ‑ with GLT’s own new Wonder Woman Mary Evan Giles as the fearless Tracy Turnblad gingerly awakening her 1962 Baltimore street with her “Oh, oh, oh!” to Khristin Stephen’s Motormouth Maybelle declaring “It’s time to wrap this mutha up!” in “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” the sensational feel-good finish that’s so BIG it’s in two parts. And both pleasantly linger with you a full 24 hours later after shimmying out of the GLT theatre at Heritage Green.

“Hairspray,” directed by Suzanne McCalla with Musical Direction by Tim St. Clair II, is a high-octane show bursting at both hairlines and hemlines with vigor and zest and set amidst the racial strife of the civil rights movement as pretty and plump teenager Tracy becomes a celebrity overnight (and falls in love) as she leads a campaign to integrate a local TV dance program called “The Corny Collins Show.”

Based on the 1988 John Waters cult-classic campy comedy film with Ricki Lake and Divine, “Hairspray” features music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book.

As young Tracy, Ms. Giles, recent co-star of “Jukebox Heroes” at Centre Stage and “Footloose” at GLT, is a dynamo of energy in the role she was destined to play (twice including earlier in her career as a 17-year-old ingénue at Greenwood Community Theatre.) Her gigantic personality, skill and bouffant wig steer this lively story as she struggles to be accepted by the cool kids in town and revolutionize the face of television.

After her splendid aural epiphany in “I Can Hear the Bells,” Giles joins the triumphant trifecta of “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” as the three mother-daughter journeys unfold with Christina Yasi (in a slightly nerdy slant) as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, and her rival teen star Amber Von Tussle (Cat McWhirter at her most devilish, though her hairstyle seems slightly out of the era and more 1978 Farrah Fawcett).

One luxury of producing a BIG show like “Hairspray” with so many colorful characters (mostly with alliterated names) is the endless parade of powerhouse featured performers and Greenville Little Theatre has the best in town.

Jon Kilpatrick assumes the bigger-than-life part of Tracy’s grande mother Edna Turnblad. Traditionally played by men, Edna is the second-juiciest role in this story. And Kilpatrick, who is no stranger to drag roles hamming it up delightfully as the nanny Mrs. Bumbrake in “Peter in the Star Catcher” and in 2015 as Dr. Frank-N-Furter (technically a transvestite) in Spartanburg Little Theatre’s “The Rocky Horror Show,” gives Edna plenty of heart, sass and a lifetime supply of attitude.

Mary Freeman simply dazzles as the blonde vampy vixen Velma Van Tussle, the show’s white-centric producer who capitalizes on having many of the best lines in the script, and proves divine in her biographical opus “Miss Baltimore Crabs.”

Kristi Parker Byers shines at her prudest as neurotic, God-fearing Prudy Pingleton, as well as a saucy manipulative women’s jail matron in the anti-“Cabaret” jail sequence.

Ryan Bradburn, who is also behind the show’s epic scenic design, is finally back on the GLT stage finally as Wilbur Turnblad. Part-Martin Short and part –Pee Wee Herman with high-waist pants and suspenders, Bradburn lends his clown skills and a stroke of tender humanity in his duet (and reprise) with Kilpatrick in “You’re Timeless to Me.”

Kristofer Parker as Seaweed eloquently leads a rambunctious “Run and Tell That” with associate choreographer Michael Cherry lending some suave and smooth moves whenever given the opportunity.

John Brigham returns after a four-year hiatus as glittering TV host Corny Collins and is all panache and suave with a perfect hair coif.

And the incomparable Khristin Stephens soars as the record shop poet with Mae West hair and in her throaty, belting of “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and the somber message in “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

And this production features Carter Allen as Tracy’s new squeeze Link; Javy Pagan as Mr. Pinky, owner of the dress shop for plus-size women; Rick Connor as the show’s sponsor Mr. Spritzer; and Myka Young as an adorable Little Inez.

And lest we forget the dynamite Dynamites, the doo-wop girl group (Grace McGrath, Jessica Eckenrod and Meg Jones) who are on fire in “The New Girl in Town” and during Edna’s makeover scene in “Welcome to the 60’s.”

The rest of this ensemble which includes the amazing Council dancers is comprised of some familiar names as well: Matt Ballard, Isabelle Byers, Garrison Christian, Johnny Culwell, Rayann Harward, Kimberly Jackson, Griffin Lewis, Matthew Quattlebaum, Megan Smith, Chelsea Street, Sterling Street, Andrew Szykula, Solomon Troupe and Stephanie Underwood.

The non-stop dance numbers (and there are many!) were created by Kimberlee Ferreira and Michael Cherry with steps like the mashed potato, the Madison and the twist, and leave some of the cast breathless at times.

There are several incarnations of this show (from film to musical to musical film and live TV musical) and minor changes especially with the ending.  But this version retains the silly “Cooties” number with more tasteful choreography (i.e. less foot stomping killing the cooties).

Some of the joke fells flat in the first act for some reason, though the cast was doing everything right, but the Sunday matinee crowd responded to the musical numbers, and even Edna’s libretto about being unable to resist a Christmas Ham got some chuckles.

The costumes were designed by Thomas Brooks (harlequin vests for the guys and floral print dresses for the gals) but his most elaborate creations occur in the finale with Motormouth Maybelle in a hot gold lame number and for Edna, he faithfully re-constructed the original Broadway red sequin gown based on William Ivey Long’s Tony-winning design.

Bradburn’s slightly skewed Baltimore is a whimsical vision painted in cotton candy and bubble-gum colors by Kim Granner and illuminated by Cory Granner’s layered dawning lighting. The many set piece and props are awesome, including functional hairspray mist cans and the lifesize can in the finale.

Ms. McCalla makes excellent use of the turntable side stages and this show is buoyed by crisp sound tracks and near-flawless microphone quality all-around.

Graham Shaffer is Technical Director for this production with Larry Hyder as Production Stage Manager and C.J. McElhiney is Stage Manager.

Shake your tail feather and shimmy on down to the Greenville Little Theatre.

“Hairspray: The Musical” runs Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Greenville Little Theatre through June 25 at 444 College St. in Greenville. Call the Box Office for tickets at (864) 233-6238 or visit www.greenvillelittletheatre.org.

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