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'Hairspray' at the Pollard: Powerful, professional and perfectly polished

The Pollard Theatre in downtown Guthrie is presenting “Hairspray” through May 7, 2016. This production envelops the audience with music reminiscent of a favorite era: the '60s.  There is no audience participation in “Hairspray” but there is a palpable connection to the performers creating an atmosphere of excitement layered under the swirling scent of hairspray.  Those of us who lived through the '60s remember the period with great fondness.  The audience shares in the story and the music with enthusiasm and joy increasing the pleasure in this performance for everyone.  “Hairspray” tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a fan of the Corny Collins teen dance show, the Baltimore version of ‘American Bandstand.

“Hairspray”, the Broadway Musical, is from the book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan with Music by Marc Shaiman and Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman.  John Waters developed the film “Hairspray” in 1988, and since then the show has become a classic nostalgia musical.

Interestingly, a previous production of “Hairspray” was seen at the Poteet Theatre in Oklahoma City.  To quote from that review: ‘(this is)…a young community theatre, however many of the actors showcased here will go on to perform on a professional level in Oklahoma, New York and possibly Hollywood for film careers.  Although the overall performances do not always meet the highest standards of a professional troupe, they come mighty close’.  The leading character of both “Hairspray” productions, Tracy Turnblad, is played by Phoebe Butts.  The overall performances of the Pollard production definitely do meet the highest standards of a professional troupe.  One can see the difference between a superb community production and a superb professional production.  The adjectives are the same but the difference is in the polish.  This production of “Hairspray” is memorable and highly polished as well as superb. It is fascinating to see the growth that occurs when a young actress devotes herself to her craft as Phoebe Butts does.  A few years ago she was a diamond in the rough, and, now in a professional theatre troupe, under the expert direction of W. Jerome Stevenson, she has become a highly polished performer with enough carats to make her a star. Her interpretation of a young girl trying to conquer mean girls and baby-fat and ultimately converting Baltimore to integrated TV is precisely on target.  UCO student Phoebe Butts gives a convincing and wonderful performance as Tracy Turnblad. Her timing is flawless, her voice is fine-tuned and her acting is impeccable.

In addition to Butts, W. Jerome Stevenson has put together a large cast of gems including ensemble players too numerous to mention individually but shining just as brightly.  The leading cast players alongside Butts include Timothy Stewart as Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad.  Traditionally played by a large man since Waters developed the character in 1988, Stewart brings an authenticity to the role that is both unexpected and delightful.  One glance at an aristocratic turn of the ankles coupled with Stewart’s thoroughbred acting is enough.  He does have the ‘legs’ for it!  Mark Johnson is Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy’s supportive father, Edna’s loving husband and Baltimore’s incorrigible prankster. He seems to be channeling Art Carney.

Also doing great justice in this production is Charlie Monnot as Corny Collins, host of the television teenage dance show Tracy Turnblad dreams of joining and then dares to protest.  Monnot humanizes the character making his desire to host a fully integrated program quite natural.  Trinity Goodwin as Velma Van Tussle, the snobbish producer of the Corny Collins Show is wonderfully genuine; she always has her nose in the air, keeping her daughter’s nose and future equally elevated. Claudia Fain, displays that upturn elevated nose as daughter, Amber Van Tussle, giving credence to all those mean girls of the past.

It is hard to imagine that a show this remarkable would still have highlights—but it does!  De’Vin Lewis is Motormouth Maybelle, a popular performer on Corny Collins appearing weekly.  Lewis has a voice that carries her emotions beyond the confines of the auditorium and into any and all communities.  Madison Hamilton plays her daughter, Little Inez, with an integrity that matches and the talent to complement.   

Aaron Stewart is a very sexy Link Larkin, lead dancer and crooner on the Corny Collins show, and primary love interest for both Amber Von Tussle and Tracy Turnblad.  Also dancing our way into our hearts is William Hill as Seaweed J. Stubbs featured with Motormouth Maybelle.  Shocking Baltimore and the world with performances that have youngsters flocking to their televisions to watch Corny Collins in 1962; and today’s audience is just as enthralled.

Tracy is blessed with a best friend, and Kristin Kuns brings unparalleled loyalty to the friendship as Penny Pingleton.  Kuns is a fine actress and there is a great deal of substance in the wacky sidekick friend all heroines require.  Jodi Nestander is outstanding as mother Prudy Pingleton.  Nestander is equally brilliant as the Gym Teacher and hysterical as the Matron.  James Ong also has multiple roles as Harriman F. Spritzer, the Principal and Mr. Pinky.   Each is distinct and detailed, dripping comedy with every utterance.

Choreographer Jennifer Rosson developed exciting dance routines with the assistance of  Chelcy Harrell and Christopher Shephard. Wearing costumes by Michael James that move with the music and enhances the dances.  Musical Direction by Todd Malicoate is exciting and Malicoate leads the orchestra on keyboards with Jason Hunt on Guitar and Aaron Marshall on drums. The music is typical of the era performed with perfect timing. Scenic Designer, James A. Hughes creates a wonderfully plastic set with that unique institutional 60’s feel. 

While musicals are generally long on entertainment and short on substantive story lines, “Hairspray” documents a time period of protest and change.  Without young folks who, like Tracy, just ‘want to dance’ would we have such talented and diverse artists gracing our stages today? We still have progress ahead, but the journey is more fun with “Hairspray” to help conquer the discrimination. “Hairspray” is a fabulous show in a rather fantastic season.  “American Idiot” opens June 10th to cap the 2015/2016 season. 

“Hairspray” plays through May 7, 2016.  The curtain comes down at 8pm but the Pollard is just a short drive from downtown OKC.  Located at 120 W Harrison in downtown Guthrie physically and at cyberly, the box office can also be reached on your cell or landline at 405-282-2800. This is another great show—tease and spray your hair, come have some fun!

Elizabeth Hurd

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