Theatre Review: ‘Hairspray’ at Howard County Summer Theatre

Caitlin Grant as Tracy Turnblad and Laura Tschirgi as Penny Pingleton. Photo by Jeff Stanford.

Hairspray is one of the most highly produced musicals in the area.  Besides the fact that the story takes place in Baltimore and is based upon John Waters’ iconic film, this 2003 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical is produced often because of its highly energetic music and fun characters that pack a punch.

There are two ways to produce this musical. One is to direct the characters to be played in a non-cartoonish, more realistic way.  The other is to just let loose and have fun.  Director Tom Sankey chose to just let loose and have fun in this summer show filled with Ultra Clutch Hairspray, an ultra large pit orchestra, and yes, an ultra large cast of 90!

Photo by Jeff Stanford.

The story of Hairspray revolves around a “pleasantly plump” teenager named Tracy Turnblad who dreams of becoming famous and fights to racially integrate The Corny Collins Show in 1962 Baltimore.  Based on the Buddy Deane Show which aired on WJZ from 1957 until 1964, teenagers danced their hearts out to the latest music.

NYU Musical Theatre student, Caitlin Grant gets star turn as Tracy Turnblad.  Not only does she look the part, Caitlin brings sincerity and pep to her knock-out performance.  Her singing voice has the strength of Ethel Merman and the tenderness of Barbra Streisand.  Her shining moment is her rendition of the reprise of “Good Morning Baltimore” in the second act. You could truly see that she loves singing the song.

While Tracy is in school, her mother Edna Turnblad is busy running a laundry business out of their home.  Stephen Namie continues the tradition of this role being played by a man.  What he doesn’t continue is the tradition of the role being played with a Hampden accent.  With that said, Stephen’s masculine features mixed in with his plus-sized female body, makes his performance uproariously funny and, at times, very endearing.

Director Tom Sankey truly takes to heart the idea and meaning behind community theatre, bringing together 90 cast members, 20 musicians, and scores of volunteers behind the scenes to make the show possible.

By day Wilbur, played by Todd Hochkeppel, is the owner of the Har-De-Har Hut joke shop, by night he is the loving husband of his wife, Edna. His performance fits in with the campy style of this production, delivering many corny quips and improved lines, which works for his character.  After all, he owns a joke shop.  Joking aside, Wilbur loves his wife.  And in the song, “Timeless to Me,” Wilbur expresses his love by singing “you’re like a stinky old cheese babe, just gettin riper with age.”  The chemistry between Todd and Stephen suits the show well, proving once again, that Mr. Sankey is a whiz at casting!

Marloe Lippert is delightfully devious as the producer of the The Corny Collins Show, Velma Von Tussle. Heidi Bertaux as Prudy Pingelton serves very well as the militant and prudish mother of Penny Pingelton (Laura Tschirgi), an “Ugly Betty” type character who has a crush on Seaweed (Cameron Cox), one of the African American dancers on “Negro Day” and son of Motormouth Maybelle (Kay-Megan Washington).  With her confident singing voice, Washington’s rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” was inspiring.

Edna (Steve Namie) and Wilbur (Todd Hochkeppel). Photo by Jeff Stanford.

The cast is so ultra large that ensemble members fill the aisles in the audience for many of the songs.  This adds a bit of excitement to audience members with the cast being so close. One thing that could be improved upon, however, would be to have lights on the ensemble.  It is very hard to see them in the darkened theatre.

At the very least, their enthusiastic singing voices added nicely to the live orchestra, expertly led by Kevin George.  The sweet sounding orchestra stayed in sync with the vocals.  (Not an easy task with such a large cast.) With the many budget cuts these days, it was a real treat to have a live string section, which includes Amanda Burns, Debra Rose Sagmiller,  and Christina Krueger on the violins, Casey Mason and Thomas Wissman on the cellos, and Reid Bowman on the bass.

Director Tom Sankey truly takes to heart the idea and meaning behind community theatre, bringing together 90 cast members, 20 musicians, and scores of volunteers behind the scenes to make the show possible.

Howard County Summer Theatre has been producing musicals since 1975.  Each year, this organization gives a portion of the profits to various charities in central Maryland.  Last year HCST donated over $6000 to charity.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Hairspray plays through Saturday July 14, 2012 at The Mount Hebron High School Auditorium, 9440 MD-99 in Ellicott City, MD. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.