“Hairspray” Rocks Rhode Island!

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Mister D: Mr. Vilanch talks of opening night: “The first night the lights went out just before “timeless” and I entertained in the dark like Dixie Leonard. Then the lights came on and the set wouldn’t move. more improv… the theatre is a restored old movie palace, quite fabulous, but vast.” And from what I gather from this article, the audience absolutley loved it.

Piled high with jokes and songs, Hairspray is no tease
Thursday, November 6, 2003
By CHANNING GRAY (I Love This Name…Beautiful!)
Providence Journal Arts Writer

Forget about the hype. Hairspray is the real deal — at least the zany, upbeat tour that pulled into the Providence Performing Arts Center this week.

It’s got great tunes (a blend of ’60s doo-wop and trumpet-accented soul), great voices and some outrageous gags — even when things don’t go according to plan.

At Tuesday’s opening, the lighting fizzled and the stage went dark for 15 minutes, adding an unexpected second intermission. But when the glitch was straightened out, Hollywood Squares veteran Bruce Vilanch, dressed in drag as the mammoth mom of our big-haired heroine Tracy Turnblad, and Todd Susman, as her milquetoast mate Wilbur, picked things up without missing a beat.

“Can you hear me now?” Vilanch ad-libbed into the stage telephone he’d been talking into.

Then things went awry with Wilbur’s joke shop, the Har-De-Har Hut: A canister that was supposed to spew streamers misfired.

“Imagine if this were Death of a Salesman,” quipped Vilanch, adding, “I can tell you we’re not getting out of here at 9:30.”

At that, Susman and Vilanch, looking like someone recruited from a drag-queen retirement home, eased into Timeless to Me, a delicious vaudeville number that ends with Susman giving Vilanch a feel.

“He’s been doing that to me longer than Plunder Dome,” cooed Vilanch. “But then I do have a Renaissance body.”

Quirky fun

It’s true that Vilanch was not headed home at 9:30. But no one seemed to care that the show ran long and took a left turn for a moment.

This tour, on the road for not quite two months so far, is a tight, high-energy evening of pure joy.

And I’m not sure why. I confess I entered PPAC wondering how a show about big hair could be anything but a bust. Not five minutes into it, I was a believer.

Maybe that’s because Hairspray is so quirky, so off-beat, and so able to deal with the still-loaded issue of segregation without sounding preachy, or hitting the audience over the head with its message.

Adding to the eccentric feel are cartoonish sets that look like they were designed for Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

Our protagonist is an overweight, out-of-the-loop teen who hangs out with dorky bubble-gum chewing Penny Pingleton. Tracy Turnblad wants nothing more than to dance with heartthrob Link Larkin on the Corny Collins show, the American Bandstand of 1960s Baltimore, produced by Susan Cella’s bigotted Velma Von Tussle, the former Miss Baltimore Crabs.

The thing is, Tracy has learned her moves from Seaweed J. Stubbs, one of the groovin’ black kids she hangs out with in detention. And she can’t understand why the Seaweeds of the world aren’t welcomed on TV.

When she finally wins a spot on the show, she’s announces to an uptight Baltimore viewership that she wishes every day were “Negro Day.” And for her efforts at integration, she ends up in the slammer.

Tracy is no hottie. But in the hands of Carly Jibson, a 19-year-old, 4-foot-10-inch sparkplug, the plucky Miss Turnblad is irrepressible. Jibson, who was discovered while performing in a Michigan theater, is a natural, with a impressive set of pipes and amazing presence for such a little thing, even a little thing stuffed with padding.

She bolts out of bed in the opening moments of the show and takes command in Good Morning Baltimore.

Refreshingly incorrect

Perhaps one reason Hairspray, based on the John Waters cult film of the same name, is such a mega-hit is because it’s so refreshingly politically incorrect.

When Seaweed rescues girlfriend Penny, who has been bound to her bed to save her from the “colored” people, he pulls out a switchblade to cut her loose, singing about the benefits of growing up in the ghetto.

And Hairspray isn’t afraid to go for bottom-line laughs. Tracy wants her housewife mom to be her agent, but Edna feels she should hire someone with experience.

“Who handled the Gabor Sisters?” Edna asks, then adds: “Who didn’t.”

The better line comes as the white kids from the TV-show party at Seaweed’s.

“If we get any more white people in here,” says one of the blacks, “we’ll be a suburb.”

Stunning performance

Pretty boy Link is far more retiring and not nearly as impressive a belter as Jibson. But then, he’s supposed to be the laid-back crooner who takes his time getting over his narcissistic hangups.

The Dynamites, a trio of black soul sisters, are another story. They help push a smoking rendition of Welcome to the ’60s over the top.

And Charlotte Crossley, as Seaweed’s mom Motormouth Maybelle, is stunning as she urges Tracy to follow her dreams in I Know Where I’ve Been. Crossley, who looks a little like a chunky Tina Turner in a blond wig, starts out with a tentative caress before letting loose and allowing the tune to soar.

Helping her along is a crack band led by the driving synthesizer of Jim Vukovich, and accented with Rick Hammett’s cutting trumpet.

Goofy Penny, played by Sandra Denise, pulls off a remarkable transformation from Plain Jane airhead to slinky sexpot. Jordan Ballard adds little more than whine to the part of Tracy’s rival, Amber Von Tussle.

So even if big hair in Baltimore doesn’t sound like your thing, my advice is, try it. I guarantee you’ll love it.

Hairspray runs through Nov. 16 at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St. Tickets range from $45 to $65. Call 421-2787.