Paramount delivers plus-size hit with 'Hairspray'
"Live television -- there's nothing like it."
That's a line spoken by Devin DeSantis as the title TV host of "The Corny Collins Show" in "Hairspray," the smash hit 2002 Broadway musical inspired by filmmaker John Waters' 1988 movie of the same name. "Hairspray" is about a plus-size teenager named Tracy Turnblad (a sunny Amelia Jo Parish) who strives to create a live TV coup to racially integrate a local "American Bandstand"-style TV show in 1962 Baltimore.
Thanks to a dazzling production at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, "Hairspray" is a big bouffant of joy spritzed with serious reminders of segregation.
Yet on opening night, DeSantis' comment about the unpredictability of "live television" could have easily been changed to "live theater."
In Act II, a malfunctioning scenic panel stopped the show cold just before the romantic duet "Timeless to Me." A stage manager ordered actors to exit the stage for their safety and asked the audience for patience as members of the stage crew tried to shift the jammed scenery back into place. After a pause of nearly 10 minutes, it was determined that the panel was OK in its titling state for the show to continue.
This was an embarrassing hiccup in what is otherwise a superlative staging by Amber Mak, who is making a confident Chicago-area directorial debut on top of her long list of credits as a choreographer and an actress. Mak's multimedia approach to "Hairspray" is buoyantly infused with clever choreographed configurations for the bubbly ensemble, while banks of televisions framing and dotting the stage provide a strong visual sense of the era's pop cultural landscape. Design credit goes to Linda Buchanan on her 1960s-styled sets, Michael Stanfill for the still and action-filled media projections and Greg Hofmann for his flashy lighting design. Paramount's "Hairspray" also dazzles with Theresa Ham's eye-catching period costumes that are splashed with sequins, while makeup and wig designer Katie Cordts creates towers of sculpted beehive hair.
Mak has cast Paramount's "Hairspray" with a refined ensemble that plays to the musical's comic strengths of Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's off-kilter script and the gloriously catchy bubble-gum pop score by songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
Some cast members are skilled veterans of previous "Hairspray" productions such as E. Faye Butler as the "Negro Day" TV DJ and record store owner Motormouth Maybelle (she's a vocal powerhouse in "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" and "I Know Where I've Been"). Another "Hairspray" veteran is Ariana Burks as her daughter, Little Inez, who shines with a spunky solo in the energetic number "Run and Tell That."
Others are wonderful newcomers, such as Gilbert Domally as the smooth dancer Seaweed J. Stubbs. He falls for Tracy's awkward best-friend Penny Pingleton (a hilarious Landree Fleming). Another scene stealer is George Keating, who delightfully pulls the audience's focus through his many comic guises under the title of "Male Authority Figure."
As the villainous TV producer Velma Von Tussle who schemes to make her vain daughter, Amber, the winner of the televised Miss Teenage Hairspray contest, the stunning Heather Townsend and the comically petulant Samantha Pauly respectively make great opponents to Tracy's desegregation efforts.
Though romantically linked at first to Amber, the teenage heartthrob Link Larkin (an engaging and earnest Henry McGinniss) soon gets his head turned by the open and accepting Tracy. Two others who crucially rally to Tracy's side are her parents. Michael Ehlers makes for a zany Wilbur Turnblad (a proprietor of a joke shop), while Michael Kingston comically downplays Edna Turnblad in a drag performance that brings out the humanity and love of the insecure plus-size housewife.
It was Kingston and Ehlers who had to vacate the stage when the stage panel got stuck in Act II. But instead of being thrown by the disruption, the two performers effortlessly resumed their performances after the pause.
So despite the opening night mishap, Paramount's "Hairspray" resiliently holds up the Aurora theater's proud reputation for stellar homegrown Broadway shows.
Location: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666, paramountaurora.com
Showtimes: 1:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 21
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Nearby pay garages and some street parking
Rating: Lots of innuendo, but largely for general audiences