Head to the Ivoryton Playhouse for Hairspray -- it's a Real Treat

By Amy J. Barry

Hairspray has been through so many permutations over the past 24 years, it’s enough to make your head spin. First conceived as a film by John Waters (1988), the movie morphed into a Broadway musical comedy in 2003, winning eight Tony awards. The play then inspired a blockbuster film five years ago starring John Travolta. Since it left Broadway, the endearing production about an unlikely high school girl rising to sudden stardom, her integrity intact, has been a consistent top choice for high school musicals throughout the country.


And now it’s at a theater near you -- The Ivoryton Playhouse -- under the direction of Jacqui Hubbard, who has done an excellent job breathing some fresh new life into the show while staying true to the wonderful oddities of the original Water’s script and its commentary on the social/racial injustices still prevalent in 1963 when it takes place


At the center of the musical is Tracy Turnblad, a charming weight-challenged teen, who is both colorblind and fat-blind and naively doesn’t understand why people just can’t all get along. Tracy has her sights fixed not only on dancing on “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s American Bandstand, but integrating it and doing away with Negro Day; the one day African Americans are allowed to appear on the show. Sullivan brings boundless energy and believability to her role -- we feel her character’s starry-eyed unstoppable determination on every level.


Michael Barra of Durham, who is featured as T-Bone in the newly released film The Amazing Spider-Man, plays Tracy’s mother Edna. A gentle giant in a ballooning house dress and fuzzy slippers, Barra is witty and warm in the role, with strong vocals and dance chops, and while it’s a distraction when such a super star of “guy” roles as Travolta plays a woman, Barra seems so comfortable as Edna, it strangely doesn’t seem so strange.


Among the many standout supporting actors is Neal Mayer as Wilbur Turnblad, fabulous as the oddball and grounded family man. Mayer is rail-thin, which next to his daughter and wife, is funny in itself.


Bethany Fitzgerald is terrific as the character we love to hate: the evil, racist Amber Von Tussle and her daughter Velma (Tara Michelle Gesling) comes in a close second. Abby Hart with her fiery red hair is delightful as Tracy’s friend Penny Lou Pingleton; and Karen Anderson is a blast as Motormouth Maybelle and sings up a storm in such numbers as “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and “I know Where I’ve Been.”


The production is rounded out by John DeNicola’s energetic direction of the rocking score, Cully Long’s fun, quirky set design including a giant hairspray container, and Vivianna Lamb’s colorful ‘early ‘60s-correct costumes.


On a serious note, as implausible as Hairspray’s storyline is, it reminds us of how some things change, and some stay the same, and some just become subtler -- like the way we treat “the other.”


All ends happily with the company singing the upbeat “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” The Corny Collins Show is fully integrated, Tracy gets her man without losing a single pound, and is off to college to study music and ethnology.


The Ivoryton Playhouse’s version of the popular musical about an unpopular girl is a real treat and fun summer fare.


Hairspray runs through July 29 at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street in Ivoryton. Tickets are available by calling 860-767-7318 online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.


This review appeared in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.

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