Rosemary Laughlin/review: CUTC's 'Hairspray' remains a winner

Rosemary Laughlin/review: CUTC's 'Hairspray' remains a winner

By ROSEMARY LAUGHLIN

In 2007, John Travolta endured fat pads and heavy makeup to play and dance the role of mom Edna Turnblad in a film version of "Hairspray." He praised this "very light-hearted, deeply entertaining, feel-good musical that you'll be able to watch many, many times."

It is our turn to be delighted that one of those times is now, as performed by area teens for the 12th Champaign Urbana Theatre Company's student production.The setting is 1962 Baltimore. Familiar plot conflicts for high school teens are there: popularity, image issues about weight, mean girls, parents, school detentions for behavior or dress violations. They flow around the daily televised teen dance program, "The Corny Collins Show."The first focus is set on who will win the competition for the best dance moves to be voted Miss Hairspray of 1962. This shifts to a more serious, ugly social problem, racial segregation. Tracy Turnblad determines that the show should be integrated.

She is joined by school friends of both races, as they face their nemesis in the venal, villainous Velma Von Tussle, who produces the Collins show and wants her daughter to win the title. Shenanigans and political interventions ensue. A night in jail is the result of a protest march with posters.

"Good Morning Baltimore," led by Tracy, starts the show with a catchy, cheerful melody that students pick up as they head to school. It swells and fills both stage and auditorium.

The dancers on "The Corny Collins Show" follow and wow us immediately with their routines. Tyler Bowlin plays the host with the smooth flair made famous by Dick Clark on "American Bandstand."

The dancing is virtually nonstop and demonstrates many kinds of steps. The choreography by Whitney Havice is another jewel in her crown of local productions. The blending of styles is fast, seamless. It is superb in the unison which the cast achieves even in the largest numbers. A few Charleston steps manage to slip in among the twist, the swing, the jive, and freestyles.

The songs, too, show variety and give special pleasure to audience members who recall them from the late 1950s and early 1960s. There's doo-wop, rock, bop, soul, even a Latin number.

Several pieces stand out for me above the overall engaging quality that makes this musical skim along. "It Takes Two" is a lovely duet sung by Tracy and Link, her heartthrob boyfriend. Tracy's parents have another, "You're Timeless to Me." "I Know Where I've Been" echoes the soul of Motormouth Maybelle. "I Can Hear the Bells" and "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" capture the contrasting moods of a teen in love and a daughter stating her independence.

The 10-piece pit orchestra directed by Stefanie Davis is bright, vibrant and quick. It hustles, allows no lagging. Unfortunately, the volume often swallows the words of the singers even though they wear mics. Audience members were talking about it at intermission as a problem with the acoustics of the Miner auditorium.

Some of the roles are double-cast, a sign of plentiful talent. It is nice to enable more young actors to add a substantive part to their theater experience.

I saw the play on opening night and noted several standouts. Grace Brown makes Tracy a warm-hearted, courageous heroine who belts or sweetens her songs accordingly. Josh Meesey is aptly called "the budding Elvis" for his singing, dancing and cool, smiling wink.

Ashanti Butler as Little Inez is an eye-catching, terrific dancer. The voice of Olivia Nelshoppen as Motormouth Maybelle is powerful and moving. Kabe Schuster and Meghan Kelly as the Turnblad parents are especially touching and sympathetic; they encourage each other to follow their dreams.

Set designer James Dobbs creates an efficient central turntable for changing scenes. Decor is minimal. Blocks of changing color above the scene in play underscore the mood.

Laure Welle, assisted by Tafadzwa Diener, is the director of the Broadway musical written by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Whitman.

The final number, "You Can't Stop the Beat," pulsates. It has the entire cast twisting, swinging, jiving, grooving and shimmying, passing it on to an audience on its feet.

Rosemary Laughlin is a retired English teacher from University High School.

Topics (2):Education, Theater

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