by Jennifer Bubriski

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 28, 2014


"Hairspray" is like mainlining musical comedy -- the Tony-nominated musical, based on the 1988 John Waters film, is the perfect blend of sixties-inflected tunes and dances, subversively comic lyrics, and belly laughs. Wheelock Family Theatre's production hits the right notes, driven by two big (pun intended) starring performances and an energetic, fully committed chorus.

Jenna Lea Scott stars as Tracy Turnblad, a hefty teen in 1962 Baltimore who manages to dance her way onto the Bandstand-like Corny Collins show, win the heart of the local teen idol and push the city into the civil rights era.

Scott is an appealing Tracy, and despite not being the strongest dancer in the show, commands the stage even in the group numbers through sheer charm. Scott's Asian-American heritage gives director Susan Kosoff the chance to tweak the already self-referential script, having Tracy's black classmates refer to her as "the sorta white girl". She has nice chemistry with Michael Notardonato as teen idol Link Larkin, who has a perfect crooner voice.

Most of Kosoff's direction is a treat, from the busy, tone-setting opening tableau (aided greatly by Janie E. Howland's primary-colored, Laugh In-esque set) to many other gorgeous stage pictures. However, her over-reliance on marching the cast into the aisles and around the house is a puzzler (and a bit of a literal pain in the neck).

Much more flawless is choreographer Laurel Conrad's work. The dance numbers are just damn fun, full of period steps and winking flourishes, all executed with abandon by the young ensemble. Yes, it's only January, but you likely won't find a more fun, slyly comic number than "I Can Hear the Bells" this year. Music director Matthew Stern leads a poppy orchestra, and insures that the tempos are brisk and all the backing shoo-wops are precisely placed.

Jenna Lea Scott a Tracy Turnblad
Jenna Lea Scott a Tracy Turnblad  

It's not just the ensemble that gets the need to absolutely commit to giving outsized, cheesy (in the best way) performances. Along with Scott and Notardonato, Jon Allen as Seaweed and, best and zaniest of all, Jennifer Beth Glick as Tracy's mousey best pal Penny Pingleton, completely sell every ridiculous thing asked of their characters.

Their comedic energy shows up some of the seasoned actors in the cast. Mark Linehan, as tv dance party host Corny Collins, and Gamalia Pharms, as host of Corny Collins' "negro day" Motormouth Maybelle, are both too muted in their performances.

Aimee Doherty fares better as antagonist Velma Von Tussle, who'll stop at nothing to make sure her daughter Amber (Jane Bernard) makes it big and that Baltimore remains segregated. Doherty's Velma is a stitch, but more out of exasperation with her daughter and fear of losing the status-quo than out of any villainy (Kosoff's staging of Velma's big number "Miss Baltimore Crabs" as an internal monologue rather than an all-out bitchfest contributes to this). A touch more unsheathed claws from both mother and daughter Von Tussle would be ideal.

The only real misstep in the show is Peter Carey's extra-schticky turn as Tracy's dad Wilbur Turnblad. Carey's choice to laden Wilbur's lines with wacky accents and patter unfortunately just comes out as labored and grinds the otherwise zippily paced show to a halt. (The other major problem -- under-amplification of the principal singers during group numbers -- is more easily fixed.)

Conversely, Robert Saoud as Edna Turnblad balances drag-riffic comedic bits with nicely moderated and subtle (for a guy wearing a beehive wig and enormous fake boobs) delivery in the quieter moments. Saoud's mother-daughter chemistry with Scott is a treat.

With it's go big or go home attitude, Wheelock's "Hairspray" is largely (yeah, pun intended again) high-energy entertainment.

"Hairspray" continues through February 23 at Wheelock Family Theatre in Boston. For more info you can go to the theatre's website (

Jennifer has an opinion on pretty much everything and is always happy to foist it upon others.