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HAIRSPRAY the musical comes up big in every way at Kavinoky

THE BASICS:  HAIRSPRAY, the 2003 multiple Tony Award winning Broadway musical based on the 1988 John Waters film, directed by Carlos Jones opened on September 6 and runs through October 6, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3:30 and 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at the Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Avenue (829-7668). Runtime: 2 – ½ hours including one 15-minute intermission

HAIRSPRAY Big Hair Girls Tracy (Meaghan McDonald) and Penny (Arin Lee Dandes) are in love with the Corny Collins Show – photo credit Gene Witkowski

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  We’re in working class Baltimore, Maryland, in 1962, where high schooler Tracy Turnblad has a dream: to dance on The Corny Collins Show (think local American Bandstand). She knows all the dances and keeps up with all the latest styles, ratting (teasing) her hair to such enormous heights that finally she is sent to detention. There she meets Seaweed and other African American students, who teach her some of their dance moves, which she uses to catch the attention of Corny Collins. When asked on live television about her aspirations, she says that she would like to see every day on the show be “Negro Day” – currently just a once-a-month feature hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (mother of Seaweed). Tracy uses her new popularity to get her wish. With a strong beat, and strong messages of inclusion, the original Broadway show won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Original Score (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) and Best Book of a Musical (Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan).

HAIRSPRAY Tracy (Meaghan McDonald) learns some moves from Seaweed (Brian Brown) – photo credit Gene Witkowski

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: After favorite director Lynn Kurdziel Formato (THE PRODUCERS, SPAMALOT) was called up to work full time for Disney, I wondered “how will they ever keep up the tradition of excellence?” Ha! Not to worry. They called Carlos R.A. Jones to choreograph and direct. That would be Buff State Professor Jones, whose resume is as long as your arm. You may have seen his direction of DON’T BOTHER ME, I CAN’T COPE, a history of popular American dances shown in the context of African American life last year at the Paul Robeson Theatre in the African American Cultural Center (and winner of a 2018 Artie Award for “Best Ensemble of a Musical”). Of course! I can’t imagine a better director for HAIRSPRAY, and when you go, you won’t either. Let me remind you right now that in Buffalo, unlike Broadway, extending runs is extremely difficult, and while the Kavinoky has added a week here and there in the past, I wouldn’t count on it, so get your tickets now, because this show will sell out soon.

Where to begin? Every single member of the cast is outstanding in his or her and in two cases his/her role.

Where to begin? Every single member of the cast is outstanding in his or her and in two cases his/her role. Let me repeat EVERY… SINGLE… MEMBER OF THE CAST. While that’s often the case with touring Broadway musicals seen at Shea’s, it’s absolutely the case here, and with 25 actors, I can’t list them all.

Speaking of Shea’s, we get a Broadway touring sized pit orchestra with 9 musicians (that’s huge for Buffalo theaters and it really put this show over the top) led by Allan Paglia including 3 keyboards, 2 reeds, 1 trumpet, bass, guitar, and percussion (Brian Mcmahon who was outstanding). As former BPO Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas has pointed out: size matters.

HAIRSPRAY Tracy falls for Link Larkin (Jamil Kassem Lopez) who sings It Takes Two on the Corny Collins Show – photo credit Gene Witkowski
HAIRSPRAY John Fredo as Wilbur Turnblad romances his wife Edna in the song You’re Timeless to Me – photo credit Gene Witkowski

Again, every cast member was spot on and, a credit to Director Jones, everyone stayed in character, focused, and involved, no matter what the scene was. Maeghan McDonald as Tracy Turnblad had the audience in the palm of her hand from her opening entrance and was aided and abetted by Buffalo favorite Arin Lee Dandes as Tracy’s loyal friend, Penny Pingleton, who is not the sharpest pencil in the case. (Remember pencil cases? Well, if you do, you’ll love all the 60s references and the historic photos and vintage videos which appear on the back wall, courtesy of videographers Brian Milbrand and Holly Johnson.) Jamil Kassem-Lopez is believably dreamy as “the love interest.” And three adults in the show are in rare form: actors Marc Sacco as non-stop energetic Corny Collins; John Fredo as Tracy’s supportive dad; and in four “utility” roles, Kevin Kennedy, as Principle, as Mr. Spritzer, whose product “Ultra Clutch Hairspray” sponsors Corny Collins show, as the prison Guard, and perhaps most over the top –  Mr. Pinky, owner of “Mr. Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway” (think Dressbarn).

And there are two drag roles, one traditional in HAIRSPRAY, and that’s Tracy’s mom, Edna Turnblad, played by “Divine” in the movie, and here played on stage with affection by Billy Lovern. And there’s a drag role unique to this production, and that’s Motormouth Maybelle, usually played “straight” by a female. Here we were treated to the big, big voice of Lorenzo Shawn Parnell who has been on many Buffalo stages in straight roles, including the Buffalo premier of Darryl Glenn Nettles’ THE FALL OF STAG LEE, which I had the pleasure of watching in Buffalo Opera Unlimited’s 2014 production. Yeah, he can sing opera too.

As to the “younger” cast members, I have seen Brian Brown in everyone of his roles to date and he brings that “it” quality that you won’t want to miss to the role of Seaweed.

Of course, Seaweed’s kid sister, Li’l Inez,  played by Talia Mobley, is a joy, as are the girl-group The Dynamites (think Shirelles, Supremes, etc.) made up of actors Anika Pace, Gabriella McKinley, and Alexandria Watts (who, by the way, SHOULD have won the Golden Hangar award for best dressed attendee at the 2019 Artie Awards. Just sayin’).

The music is fun, the pacing of the songs is smooth, the scene changes are crisp (Production Stage Management by Norm Sham), and the Set Design by Paul Bostaph works well with the Properties and Set Dressing by Sawyer Kost, who must have been working on this project for a year coming up with all those 60s tchotchkes. Another who must have been on this project for a year is Costume Designer Andrea Letcher. And just when you think you know what’s what, out comes Tracy for the finale in a whole new design concept. Didn’t see that one coming. Very cool.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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