EPAC’s ‘Hairspray’ lifts audience (and hair) to new heights

By on July 26, 2017

The cast of “Hairspray”

As a reviewer (and general uber-fan) of film since I began creating regularly published work in 1998, my exposure to John Waters’ work has been limited to his more obscure offerings. My introduction to the eccentric director/writer came in college with “Mondo Trasho,” which may be the worst — and intentionally so — movie I’ve ever seen. (If you haven’t seen this 1969 flick and have a fetish for the bizarre, check it out.)

To put it simply, Waters’ films push the edge of film as art; his movies blur the lines of what is weird and pop to create visually stunning and unique pictures, most of which carry the rating of X or today’s equivalent of NC-17. His only family-rated films are 1988’s “Hairspray” and “Cry-Baby” starring then newbie actor Johnny Depp.

“Hairspray” takes place in Waters’ hometown of Baltimore, specifically the southeast section of the city known as Patterson Park. But, on Thursday, July 20, the stage of the Sharadin Bigler Theatre became the setting for “Hairspray” as EPAC kicked off its second musical offering of 2017 to a packed audience. The show brought out families and theatre fans of all ages.*

“Hairspray” is the tale of Tracy Turnblad (Ali Fleming), whose dream is to appear on the Corny Collins Show, a live, local dance spectacular hosted by the Vince Fontaine-like Collins (Jordan Ross Weinhold) and produced by Velma Von Tussle (Lynne DeMers-Hunt). Not only is Von Tussle the producer, but she is also mother to the show’s “star” teenager, Amber Von Tussle (Casey Pry). DeMers-Hunt and Pry play the white antagonists in a show built on empowering diversity and introducing integration in a segregated Baltimore.

Tracy Turnblad is a chunky, spunky teen with one dream — to dance on the Corny Collins Show.

Amber, the popular girl in school, is part of the show’s “Nicest Kids in Town” troupe (Rachel Gloss, Josiah Mayer, Heidi Carletti, Marina Perrotti, Curtis Hall, Zach Haines, Sarah Lala, Jake McClellan, Jared Mazeika, and Jessie Reynolds) and is seemingly the natural match for heartthrob and fellow dance show performer Link Larkin (Alexander Gawn). Amber comes at odds with Tracy, when the “pleasantly plump” teenager tries out for a role on Collins’ show. With her best friend-sidekick (Penny Pingleton, played masterfully by Maya Burdick) by her side, Tracy tries out and eventually makes her way onto the show, despite the efforts of the cruel and vile Von Tussles.

Back at school, Tracy’s distractingly high bouffant gets her sent to detention (a place she is familiar with) where she meets the black contingency of Patterson Park High School, including the soulful hip swinger Seaweed J. Stubbs (Ian Sanchez, whose voice reminds me of Leon Bridges), who becomes Penny’s desire, much to the chagrin of her mother, the aptly named Prudy Pingleton. Tracy teams up with the other “special ed” students and meets relentlessly rhyming record producer Motormouth Maybelle (Davina Lopez, who again showcases her vocal talents seen in “Rent” and “Hair” at EPAC), who also happens to be the mother of Seaweed and city wander-about Little Inez (Zenobia Decoteau).

Tracy’s parents — Edna Turnblad (Edward Fernandez) and Wilbur Turnblad (Bob Checchia) — relish in their daughter’s success and their love for each other, which culminates in one of the show’s highlight scenes: “You’re Timeless” and “Timeless Reprise.” Here, Fernandez and Checchia display one of the greatest examples of onstage chemistry I have ever seen. They have an explosion of fun while maintaining character and bringing the entire house to tears with laughter. If there was ever a justification for an in-show standing ovation it would be after this number! The applause Thursday night was uproarious and the loudest I’d ever heard at EPAC for a single scene.

The show contains a set of actors in small, yet powerful, roles including JP Welliver as eccentric clothier Mr. Pinky; Lisa Harris as a butch gym teacher; and Michael Swanson as hairspray magnate Harriman F. Spritzer. Fleming seems custom made for this role; during the opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” I thought she might not have a great enough voice for the part, but she has enough sweetness to convey youthful naïveté, and belts out the big notes while commanding the room with her purpose. Daphnee McMaster (an EPAC newcomer) sings as one part of The Dynamites trio with a magical voice. Ensemble member and current Ephrata High School student Angel Wratto can dance!

Ed Fernandez, left, as Edna, Ali Fleming, as Tracy Turnblad, and Bob Checchia, as Wilbur, Hairspray during a dress rehearsal at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center Monday July 17, 2017.

The crowd-pleasing show-stealer was Burdick. At intermission and at the opening-night after party people were abuzz about her performance. Even at a young age she is clearly primed and ready to take on a full lead in a major production. She was last seen at EPAC in “Disney’s The Lion King Jr.” as Nala and most recently played Winnifred in “Once Upon a Mattress” at Susquehanna Stage Company. Her capacity to play through an entire scene is amazing as her facial expressions, humorous delivery, and giddy presence gripped the crowd’s attention.

A big shout out goes to the beautiful costuming led by Mercedes Mercano, who paid attention to every little detail (and big — no offense — in the case of Edna’s super-sequined silver dress in the finale) from matching shoes to dresses, to keeping the men’s white tuxes spotless. On a down note, EPAC was once again plagued by sound issues. Mics rustled against costumes and fed back; at some points voices were never picked up when performers tried to sing a line or two. It seems a travesty such talent can be blemished and a truly marvelous performance can be saddled with a glaring tech error on opening night.

Davina Lopez, left, as Motormouth Maybelle, Lynne DeMers-Hunt, as Velma Von Tussle, and Casey Pry, as Amber Von Tussle, in Hairspray during a dress rehearsal at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center Monday July 17, 2017.

Almost-kitschy, downright hilarious, yet soul moving, “Hairspray” follows in the EPAC vein of presenting “theatre that matters.” While the story is campy and stuffed with bits of off-color humor, the biting reality is not all were equal — and many are still not — in America. The fast-paced story is Tracy’s, but it is also everyone’s, as we wrestle with a past which denied humans rights and opportunity based on color of skin, physical appearance, and social standing. And this still happens today.

“Hairspray” gives us a time to laugh and remember, but also an opportunity to reflect on our current society once we leave the safety of the stage and enter our real lives of tomorrow.

*”Hairspray” is an all-ages show, but keep in mind there are some sexual, most of which will go over the heads of younger audience members.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

EPAC’s artistic director, Ed Fernandez, as Edna Turnblad.

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