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Can't Stop the Beat

Space at the table: Hairspray gets another helping at ZACH

Austin Photo Set: News_Michael_More Room at the Table_Hairspray_June 2011_lead
Tracy Turnblad (Brooke Shapiro) Photo by Kirk R Tuck
Austin Photo Set: News_Michael_More Room at the Table_Hairspray_June 2011_spray
Corny Collins (Warren Freeman) and Amber Von Tussle Photo by Kirk R Tuck
Austin photo: News_Zach Theatre Hairspray_Review_Edna
Edna (Brian Coughlin), Wilbur (Scotty Roberts) and Tracy Turnblad (Brooke Shapiro) Courtesy of Photo by: Kirk R. Tuck
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Seaweed (Joshua Denning), Motormouth Maybelle (Janis Stinson) and the Dynamites (Kia Dawn Fulton and Tiffany Mann) Photo by Kirk R Tuck
Austin Photo Set: News_Michael_More Room at the Table_Hairspray_June 2011_cast
The Nicest Kids in Town on The Corny Collins Show Photo by Kirk R Tuck
Austin Photo Set: News_Michael_More Room at the Table_Hairspray_June 2011_lead
Austin Photo Set: News_Michael_More Room at the Table_Hairspray_June 2011_spray
Austin photo: News_Zach Theatre Hairspray_Review_Edna
Austin Photo Set: News_Michael_More Room at the Table_Hairspray_June 2011_four
Austin Photo Set: News_Michael_More Room at the Table_Hairspray_June 2011_cast

ZACH Theatre needs their larger space already.

With 30 actors dancing and flipping and kicking their way through the Sixties in their latest musical extravaganza, Hairspray, it’s a wonder they didn’t take anyone’s eye (or wig) out.

Credit is due to Artistic Director Dave Steakley and Choreographer Robin Lewis for figuring out how to keep the show bopping along as effortlessly as it did despite the tight constraints on the Kleberg Theatre stage at ZACH Saturday night.

Once again, the talent is undeniable, and the musical’s wit and charm are effortlessly delivered by the fresh-faced ZACH performers visibly enjoying their opportunity to bring the hugely popular Tony Award-nabbing musical to irresistible life in Austin.

With all the iterations of Hairspray that have entered the cultural zeitgeist, it’s hard not to compare this offering to those of the 1988 John Waters movie, the Shaiman/O’Donnell/Meehan/Wittman Broadway musical or the 2007 Adam Shankman movie treatment of the musical. (Geez, that’s a lot of Hairspray.)

So is there room for another version of Hairspray in our hearts? Of course! If we’ve learned anything from this show, it’s that more is merrier, and bigger is always better!

Just about all the things you love about the original stage musical come to vivid life at ZACH, with many surprising improvements from that silly movie of the musical starring Amanda Bynes, Zac Efron and… sigh… John Travolta.

New England transfer Brooke Shapiro is endearing and earnest from beginning to end as Tracy Turnblad, the plus-size teen with the patented musical song and dance dream. Shapiro’s diminutive height sells her as a teen better than her Broadway and Hollywood predecessors, and she effortlessly carries the weight of appearing in virtually every scene of this show.

Tracy’s love interest, Link Larkin, is played by Eric Ferguson who presents a pretty square teen heartthrob. He’s more country club chic than the movie’s dreamboat-y Zac Efron, but his voice is definitely better than the floppy-haired Disney star’s. But, check it out: Ferguson will be taking his very square jaw to Houston to start work with NASA as soon as this show is out. (Now that’s swoon-worthy…)

The largest question mark of any production of this show is the obvious drag queen in the room: Edna Turnblad. Tracy’s hysterical mother was played majestically in Waters’s film by Divine, irreplaceably on stage by Harvey Fierstein, and… disastrously in the musical film by John Travolta.

I could never decipher what Harvey Fierstein was singing on the cast album and I was too busy cringing whenever John Travolta came on the screen, so I didn’t have high hopes for Edna’s effect on ZACH’s show either. Sure, her lines are genius camp cleverness, but her songs are the low points of the soundtrack, in this humble reviewer’s opinion.

So imagine my surprise when Brian Coughlin—picture Nathan Lane in a dress in The Birdcage—blew me away with Edna’s numbers.

The timing of his jokes landed squarely every time, his voice conveyed warmth and emotion, and his life-like extra padding stubbornly stayed in place despite his excessive movement. Shout out to the costuming team for that miracle!

Edna and Wilbur even won me over with their schmaltzy love duet “Timeless to Me” that I had always seen as the absolute low point of the second act.   

Similarly revolutionary is Jill Blackwood’s treatment of the creatively beehived Velma Von Tussel. Blackwood is a ZACH veteran whose timing and poise steal the show every time she’s on stage, so it was a delight to see her on stage again. However, Velma is a rather two-dimensional villainess; she’s unreal (in a show full of drag queens!), and her redemption happens impossibly fast. But with Blackwood calling the shots, we’re having so much fun, nobody’s worried about it.

The final piece of transcendence for me came in the middle of the bumpy second act when Janis Stinson as Motormouth Maybelle demanded a standing ovation during the goosebump-raising “I Know Where I’ve Been.” This song is the soulful heart of the show; and in Saturday night’s performance, it became the climax of the second act because of her unstoppable vocals.

“You Can’t Stop the Beat” is supposed to be the big second act showstopper. But with a hurried pace and too-tight choreography on that stage, this big final number was fun but underwhelming. Again, this is no fault of the performers, the designers or the directors who are producing quality work—they just desperately need the bigger space to let their creativity run rampant.

What better reason to support ZACH in their capital campaign to construct their state of the art Topfer Theatre that will allow Steakley and crew to really let their fabulous visions run wild?

The Kleberg stage works wonders for more straight plays like their ragingly successful August: Osage County. It even adds to the effect of more intimate musicals like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

But when it comes to these larger than life Tony-winning monoliths (about drag queens, plus-sized beauty and integration, people!), bigger really is better.

Hairspray runs until Aug 28, 2011 on ZACH Theatre's Kleberg Stage. Tickets are avaialble through their box office.

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