If there is anything the board members of Ram’s Head Theatrical Society will learn from putting on the spring production of Hairspray, it is that they should not choose a show for which they cannot find the right people. The show is exciting, powerful, and inspiring, but lacks both dancing talent and nuance in its treatment of race; and no number of LED lights, not even a mind-boggling twenty thousand, can make up for that.
This is not to say that the production is not spectacular. The story is a comedic minefield, with a wisecrack hidden in almost every line of priceless dialogue, every note of upbeat music, and every carefully choreographed kick. It is clear that the show features some of Stanford’s strongest singers, actors, and dancers. While not every dancer sings, every singer does dance, and this is where the rub lies. The impeccable dance ensemble tries to carry the weight of its singing counterpart, but rarely succeeds in masking the lack of dancing beat in those who can sing.
Insofar as acting is concerned, Hairspray does not lend itself easily to serious artistic stretches. All of the characters represent caricatured versions of the real people they tend to emulate; they come to unlikely decisions, utter uproarious things, and sometimes even rhyme when they talk to one another. But to say this shallowness makes the musical lesser is folly, when it is precisely that shallowness that endows the show with incredible comedic momentum; and indirectly, makes it possible for the funny story to hint at more profound meaning.
Matt Herero clearly carries this humorous essence. His hair perfectly coiffed and his face beaming with inexhaustible pizzazz, Herero’s Link Larkin leads the rest of the Nicest Kids in Town—the white people starring on the Corny Collins Show—in a manner that is at the same time exaggerated and hilarious. Sadly, not all of the Nicest Kids seem to have gotten the memo that they are supposed to be Stepfordians, and not Shakespeareans. Their smiles need to be bigger, their eyes wider, and their attitude farther over the top if they are to portray the bright-eyed Baltimore favorites.
Three of the show’s vocal highlights are the devastatingly talented Ladidi Garba, who plays powerhouse DJ Motormouth Maybelle, her son Seaweed, played by the incredible Robert Poole (one of the few actors in this production who can dance), and the fantastic Hannah Hsieh, who stars as Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton. Among them, Garba stands out as the sun-shattering auditory pinnacle of this production – she has a voice that deserves to find attention in productions beyond this one. Hopefully, in professional spheres.
The funniest actors in Hairspray are Nick Biddle and Brady Richter as Edna and Wilbur Turnblad. Working with impeccable comedic timing, this duo’s rendition of “Timeless to Me” is deeply endearing, redeeming some of the other actors’ less-than-stellar acting choices. Richter as Wilbur Turnblad reminds of his equally entertaining performance of “Master of the House” as Monsieur Thénardier in last year’s Les Miserables, where he performed alongside Hairspray lead Jessia Hoffman as his wife, Madamme Thénardier. It is as though the Thénardiers have been dry-cleaned, vigorously bedazzled, and transformed into the eccentric old farts that can’t keep their hands off each other.
There is nobody at Stanford who could play Tracy Turnblad better than Jessia Hoffman. Her stage presence is nothing short of gut-busting; she delivers her zingers with the exactitude expected of a professional performer. When Link Larkin tells her she is beautiful, Tracy responds with “It must be the low-watt institutional lighting.” This is one of the show’s funniest lines, and Hoffman serves it to the audience with the exact type of dim-witted enthusiasm as would be expected of a smitten Tracy. Triple threats are, however, becoming increasingly rare in theatre and Hoffman does not fully embody the dancing abilities expected of a show lead. This makes the story less believable, because Tracy is supposed to make it onto the Corny Collins Show based on how well she dances.
Tracy landing on the Corny Collins Show carries an implicit message about race in Hairspray. She dances well, but she also dances differently from the other white people on the show. This is because she borrows her dance moves from Seaweed, who is black. White co-opting of black culture is but one of the many matters of race that this production attempts to, but ultimately does not address. Instead, Tracy simply thanks Seaweed for showing her the awesome moves that got her on the show, and then helps him get on it as well in the show’s triumphant finale. With the commendable adjustments director Ken Savage has done to fit Asian Americans into the story of 1962 Baltimore (Penny Pingleton and her mother are Asian), he asserts himself as a racially conscious director. If Savage knows that this is a racially charged show and aims to tackle its story in an inventive way, why does he not shift the script and comment on appropriation?
Moreover, the production’s widely publicized connection between the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and #BlackLivesMatter becomes reduced to a mere sign in the protest scene. After that, when Tracy and her friends (both black and white) get arrested, nobody gets hurt by the police, and then Tracy’s father puts a mortgage on his shop to bail them out. This does not reflect the current American political reality. Institutional violence against black and brown people results in trauma, destruction, death, and the systemic erasure of identities that do not fit within the ideologically prescribed frameworks of society. In the real world to which Savage’s production aims to appeal, there is no Wilbur Turnblad to pawn his shop and save the blacks. Why do the comedic rules of unlikely decisions and uproarious utterance continue to ring true in a situation that is distinctly more serious than the rest of the show?
Comedy’s power lies in its ability to blast open cluttered conversations – about race, gender, and class, among other things. This production of Hairspray excels at comedy, which provides the setup so that the production can hint at deeper meaning. Amidst the incredible dancers, the side-splitting acting, and the soaring vocals, Hairspray forgets about the latter part of the equation, which makes this revival slightly less radical.
Photos by Frank Chen
Hairspray: 8 p.m. April 10-11, 16-18. Memorial Auditorium. Tickets at http://musical.stanford.edu/tickets.html.