Welcome to the ’60s Where You Can’t Stop the Beat in Connecticut Theatre Company’s “Hairspray”

You can’t stop the beat. Or at least you won’t want to after seeing Connecticut Theatre Company’s production of Hairspray, which runs through next weekend at New Britain’s Repertory Theatre.

The show’s signature song by that name is at the end, but there are plenty of songs woven throughout that make it worth the wait and that will also make you want to dance and sing…. and luckily for you there may be an opportunity for audience dance-ticipation at the end.

Good morning, Baltimore and welcome to the ’60s. Lights up on a vertical set that mirrors a bird’s eye view of Tracy Turnblad’s (Johanna Regan) room, as you’d see it in the movie. The perspective makes it seem like you’re looking down on Tracy as her eyes burst open and allow you to see the dynamic facial expressions you wouldn’t otherwise be able to view if she was actually lying down. It also allowed for an easy transition into her being ready for school so she didn’t have to do a quick change and was the most clever set use in production that often has a bare stage with minimal set pieces.

What’s that entertainment reality show or talk show you absolutely have to watch every time it’s on? That’s what The Corny Collins Show is to Tracy and her best friend, Penny Pingleton (Chelsea Kelle) as the ultimate fan girls obsessed with Corny (Matthew Edgar-Jospeph), the legendarily dreamy Link Larkin (Stephen Michelsson) and the dancing and music featured on the show. Just like anyone trying out for American Idol or The Voice or So You Think You Can Dance, Tracy just has to audition for the show when a spot opens up.

But there’s more to it than a celebrity crush, fame and love of entertainment and dancing. Tracy finds herself on the cusp of a racial integration movement, as the show, sponsors and prejudicial, snooty, judgmental producer Velma Von Tussle (Elizabeth Shapiro), only allow people of color on during “Negro Day.” As she is also shafted for the way she looks and her big personality, she empathizes with them and finds her priorities shift to a quest for justice even if it lands her and everyone around her in prison.

The Turnblad family stands out in this production. Regan’s enthusiasm, expressivity, energy in character and dance and command of her voice in character, style and power make her a strong and fitting casing choice for Tracy. If John Travolta were to announce his own name at some awards show featuring a Hairspray performance by this cast, it would probably sound something like Duane Campbell. Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother, is typically played by a man, as Travolta did in the movie version, but Campbell puts his own stamp on the character and plays a very believable big-hearted woman in dresses, vocals and dance through and through. Man, does he have a powerful voice as a woman. And Rob Crumb plays an adorable, lovable Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s optimistic and comically dimwitted yet somehow wise father.

Kelle may play the best friend as Penny, but her supporting role does not make her go unnoticed. She plays Penny as the stereotypical ditzy, “dumb blond,” yet there’s a lot of depth in her acting from her knack for comedic instinct to her choices for movement and expression. Her voice is one of the powerful ones you keep listening for and shows versatility. There’s a moment as Penny’s exploring her new-found feelings for Seaweed J. Stubbs (Garth West) after hanging out with him, The Dynamites and crew when she puts some grit into her voice for a few soulful notes that showcase her musicality and vocal prowess.

I envision Tracy’s leading man, Link as more of a Zac Efron heart throb type. While Michelsson didn’t aesthetically fit the character in that regard, I adored the wisp of a curl locked into place with, well, hairspray on his forehead. He plays the rising teen celebrity entertainer as nerdy, making it more believable that someone of that fame stature would fall for an average girl like Tracy. Sometimes Link’s songs seemed to fall outside of the style and range fitting to Michelsson’s voice, leading to some pitch issues, but Michelsson pours his heart and emotion into the role and really commits to it with energy in line delivery and dance. He and Regan have strong chemistry as a team with their smiles lighting up the room.

The Corny Collins Show that is the center of this musical becomes the vehicle for change and the significance is perhaps even more poignant in contemporary time given the recent riots in Baltimore.

It wouldn’t be The Corny Collins Show without Corny, as he points out to Velma when she tries to get rid of him, but you don’t get the sense that he has a lot of control over it beyond being the talent and the face of the show. Edgar-Joseph plays him as a smooth, self-confident and exuberant television host with an accent of sass when it comes to his relationship with his producer and her mean girl type daughter, star Amber Von Tussle (Rachel Dufresne). He does what he wants, though it’s really Tracy that forges changes in his show. While he’s on board with it and just seems to roll with everything without question, his motive is more about being ahead of what’s trendy and a genuine open-mindedness than seeking justice. There’s not much in terms of character arch with the role because Corny lives in the present and is who he is, but Edgar-Joseph emotes what Corny is thinking, even when he has to put on a smile for the camera, through the slightest facial expressions, the tone in his lines and subtle sarcasm.  Edgar-Joseph has a voice for television that captures the excitement his character’s show is meant to exude and he sings with a pop edge needed for Corny’s songs. He is completely in the zone of the role. He fully commits to the dancing in his solos and it’s too bad Corny isn’t included in more of the large dance numbers.

Besides Regan, Kelle and Campbell, another vocal force to be reckoned comes from Motormouth Maybelle, Seaweed’s mother, who is shockingly only 19. She can belt with soul. Tiffany Vinters also stood out with her singing and ease at vocal riffs as one of the Dynamites. I’d see both of them in concert as solo artists. Little Inez, Seaweed’s younger sister, has some spunk and she may be little but the girl can sing. Renee J. Sutherland also had a beautiful, jazzy quality to her voice and I wish there was some more volume to her solos because she sings well and it’s pleasing to the ear. Both Vinters and Sutherland move well as dancers. Iesha Moore plays the third Dynamite and despite a bout of laryngitis was able to make herself heard.

West doesn’t have the physique of a dancer, but he also moved well and put suave attitude into the character. Omar Peele also stood out in the ensemble as a dancer. He had a line at one point that was inaudible because he had no microphone, which is always an issue for speaking roles without that audio boost, whereas other voices with microphones were almost too big for the small theater.

Jodi Dickson excels in comedy and proved herself versatile, taking on the roles of Prudy Pingleton, the gym teacher and prison matron. She’s not afraid to go there. It might take you a second to pick up on the meaning in her one-liners, innuendos and gestures, but she got some laughs.

The little girl who played Shirley Temple and the children displaying the final vote tally in the Miss Teenage Hairspray competition are adorable.

The “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now” with the three mother-daughter pairings of Mrs. Turnblad (Campbell) and Tracy (Regan), Mrs. Pingleton (Dickson) and Penny (Kelle), and Velma (Shapiro) and Amber (Dufresne) was a standout number from the funny use of tableau poses to the stellar vocals and characters.

The cast includes a range of ages from children to adults. Some of the characters are too old or too young for their parts, but everybody had smiles on their faces in the dances and really seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The costumes and hair were fantastic in this show. I would have liked to see wigs or a change in look for some characters who are double cast as a role and ensemble, like Brenda (Ashley Mirando), who goes on a 9-month hiatus from the show. However, it is theater so there is some semblance of suspension of disbelief.

Sometimes costumes do unexpected things and on the second Saturday night performance there was a wardrobe malfunction involving the back of Campbell’s dress in a duet with Crumb that caused several gasps in the audience when he spun around, exposing the bloomers he was wearing. It didn’t phase Campbell at all as he did his part with gusto and enthusiasm, leaving the audience wondering whether it was intentional. It unfortunately distracted from an otherwise fantastic number that really showcased both actors’ talents and the chemistry between Crumb and Campbell’s characters on stage. Even after they went off stage and came back on, the dress issue hadn’t been fixed, but the third time Campbell came back on it was resolved. What can you do? But it didn’t take away from the enjoyment of the number.

Kristen Norris choreographed the show and also played Tammy, one of The Corny Collins Show cast members. She has poise in her dance and her expressiveness stands out. It was no doubt a lot of work to be on the directing team and in the show, but she rose to the challenge.

Erin Campbell directed the show and Nathaniel Baker was the music director.

All in all, I can hear the bells and you can too with another matinee performance today at 2 p.m. at New Britain’s Repertory Theatre at 23 Norden Street and a final round of shows next weekend. For more information, visit www.connecticuttheatrecompany.org. Tickets are available at the door.

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