The primary message of the musical “Hairspray” is summed up this way: “You can’t stop the beat.”
It’s a message about societal progress, particularly in the arena of diversity, but it also describes the opening night presentation of Theatre Cedar Rapids’ production of the show. Fueled by high quality singing, a hot band, and several top-notch performances, the cas t— under the direction of TCR artistic director Leslie Charipar — overcame technical problems, some dropped lines and some lackluster dancing to collect an enthusiastic standing ovation from the full house.
The show follows the efforts of teenaged Tracy Turnblad (Emma Drtina), a chubby but committed aspiring dancer, to integrate the American Bandstand-style Corny Collins Show in the Baltimore of 1962. Along the way, she snags Link Larkin (Josh Payne) — the boy of her dreams — and reignites the dreams of her mother, Edna (Michael Holmes).
“Hairspray” is filled to bursting with catchy numbers, and this is a cast that knows how to deliver a song. While there were a few pitchy moments, by and large, song after song was well sung, with highlights including Tracy’s love-struck “I Can Hear the Bells,” Seaweed (Ezekiel Pittmon) and Little Inez’s (ShaCorrie McBride) “Run and Tell That,” Corny Collins’ (Karl Becker) “(It’s) Hairspray,” and Motormouth Maybelle’s (Deandrea Leigh Watkins) “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Watkins powerfully delivered the show’s civil rights anthem with the aid of strong choral backing vocals.
The band, under the direction of musical director Janelle Lauer, was excellent throughout the show. On occasion, the band overpowered the vocalists, but only rarely, and the trouble was sometimes technical and sometimes the fault of the singers.
Standout performances were delivered by Holmes—whose cross-dressed performance as Tracy’s mother was just about perfect, whether he was singing, dancing, or delivering barbed dialogue — and Pittmon — who was a bit hard to understand in his early dialogue, but who lighted up the stage when he sang and danced. In fact, his performance of “Run and Tell That” late in the first act was the moment that seemed to banish any and all opening night jitters the cast might have been experiencing.
Some of those opening night jitters might have been augmented by a persistent microphone issue, which started right at the top of the show. The first few notes of Tracy’s show-opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” were not amplified. The problem recurred throughout the first act, costing the audience the opportunity to hear key spoken and sung lines and obscuring some performances. At the very end of the act, an essential Link Larkin line was lost, upending a key moment in the plot.
On occasion, lines were lost simply because they were not spoken or sung. Dtrina seemed to struggle with this in a few songs, and it was unclear whether the problem was one of memory or stamina. A few moments of dialogue were delayed or garbled as various actors missed cues or stepped on the lines of others.
The dancing early in the show didn’t quite pop. There may have been a number of reasons for this: Bret Gothe’s set is beautiful but takes up a lot of real estate on the stage; the early number “The Nicest Kids in Town,” might have been taken a smidgen too fast; choreographer Mike Weaver may have suggested that the white kids dance a bit less well in the early-going to emphasize how unfair it is that the black kids can’t dance on the Corny Collins Show. From “Run and Tell That” to show’s end, however, the dancing improved across the cast.
The show’s finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” was just a little shaky at first. The younger principles weren’t synced on the choreography and didn’t all belt out the song with the required verve. But after a bit of plot was taken care of, Holmes and Watkins took their turns center stage on the song and showed everyone how it’s done. Once the whole cast joined in, the joyous singing and dancing was infectious, bringing the show to its rousing, moving conclusion.
– Rob Cline