I believe it is imperative to always have something to look forward to in life. Ever since they announced it last year, I’ve been looking forward to seeing what Wright State could do with “Hairspray!”. This is a big show that requires a very large cast and a different depth of talent than some of the more traditional “big” shows require. “42nd Street,” for instance, was a huge show with unbelievable dancing – but it was traditional tap and the kind of dancing that any musical theater program would likely teach all of its students.
The 60’s style of “Hairspray!” however feels like it might not be the traditional type of dance one would learn in such a program. But after seeing the show tonight, someone is obviously teaching it – and very well – because this show truly rose to another level during the dance numbers. I lost my program so I don’t know who the choreographer was off hand but they – and director Joe Deer – deserve big time kudos for pulling this off with such a diverse cast.
Honestly, there were a few weaknesses in the show; some of the acting and singing wasn’t up to par or at least to the level I’ve come to expect from WSU. And at the same time, I don’t know how you could sing AND dance that enthusiastically without sounding breathy and a little off pitch. The dancing was impeccable; how they will do two shows in one day on those days that require it baffles me.
Several performers stood out in a very big way. Ian Devine’s dancing is his best asset and it was good to see him featured in a show that allowed him to shine as a dancer. As Link, he carried the dancing better than I even expected. Deshawn Bowers gave an above average performance as “Seaweed,” with both his dancing and acting chops. Justin Talkington (the Male Authority Figure) could have very easily stolen all of his scenes had he not also possessed the skills needed to reign in all of his comic energy. I really wanted to see more of him as “Mr. Pinky.” Casey Jordan and Chrissy Bowen are also great comedic actors and Jordan especially showed appropriate restraint as “Wilbur.”
The ensemble players (the “Nicest Kids in Town” and the “Motormouth Kids”) were picture perfect and fulfilled their duties nicely. Beth Conley was very good as “Tracy Turnblad” and didn’t overplay the role as one might be tempted to do. Her dancing was also very good. Both Nikki Nathan and Kylie Santoro were brilliant in the way they played the evil “Van Tussles.” As villains, they were believable and deliciously nasty.
But for me, there were two breakout stars in this show. Melissa Hall (“Penny”) caught me by surprise with her comedic ability AND her singing. Last time I saw her, she was belting out rock songs in the Alex Horton show “Stuck in Between.” Based on that show, I thought of her as a serious singer. But every time she was on stage, it was hard to take my eyes off of her. I just marveled at her comic timing and her very good pitch and very nice tone and again, her dancing was also superb. She’s a star.
And then there was Drew Helton. I’ve seen Drew before and he’s always been very funny. But you can tell that over the last year – since “Anything Goes” – something has clicked for him that has propelled him to another level. His “Edna” was not just the typical “man in drag, haha” kind of performance. There were many times that I completely forgot that he was not a woman. His subtle mannerisms, the way he held his dress, his facial expressions . . . they all came together. It wasn’t just comedy; he was acting. When he danced in “Welcome to the 60s” in those red high heels, I felt like giving a standing ovation. It was spectacular. And then his duet with Jordan in “Timeless to Me” was sweet, funny, and touching. I loved loved loved loved loved his take on Edna.
The show flew by. It was well paced and the orchestra led by the very talented Rick Church didn’t miss a beat. The sets were not as elaborate as I expected, but they were sufficient and set the tone well. I really enjoyed many of the lighting elements, especially in the opening scene after intermission in the jail.
Do yourself a favor and call the WSU Box Office and see if you can get a seat for this show before it ends on November 13th. The dancing alone is worth the very reasonable ticket price; everything else is just gravy.
“Hairspray!” runs from now until November 13th in the Festival Playhouse at Wright State University. Tickets are available by calling 937-775-2500 but are selling very fast.