“Hairspray” at Hope Summer Rep is an explosion of joy
HOLLAND, Mich.–Hope Summer Repertory Theatre does a lot of things well. One of things that they excel in is the big-cast musicals.
For the opening production of its 45th season, the company is staging Hairspray with 30 people, a mix of Equity actors, students and actors from around the country. Hope filled its stage with music and dance, making “Hairspray” a celebratory production that has the crowed moved to long spates of applause between each number.
Directed by Fred Tessler, this Hairspray is energetic and upbeat. It never stops moving and every performer in it gives a committed performance with a unity of vision. There are serious themes in this show, ones dealing with racial integration, fat shaming and pursuing one’s dreams. Tessler keeps the mood light and the action constant.
Hannah Clarke Levine plays the central character of Tracy Turnblad, the plus-size teenager who is ready to take on Baltimore and change the world by dancing and integrating the all-white Corny Collins show. Levine is an excellent dancer and singer, plainly showing why she deserves the attention that Corny Collins showers on her character and the stardom that she garners. She also creates a spunky character who is multi-dimensional.
As Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton, Samantha McHenry has some great moves too. Her physicality for the part is excellent, creating a contrast with Levine as she moves long, lanky limbs in spider-like motions. It’s fun to watch her fall in love with Seaweed Stubbs (Aramie Payton) and see her character grow from submissive to defiant.
Chip Duford, a longtime favorite at HSRT, is Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother. In this gender-bending role, Duford is delightful and constantly entertaining. He has us rooting for Edna as she supports her daughter’s success and finds herself blooming and coming into her own. Duford shows us her insecurities and strengths. He owns the stage when he’s dancing and he has a delightful singing range that makes Edna convincing as a middle-aged woman.
Duford is especially delightful paired with Tom Emmott as her husband Wilbur Turnblad. They show that love comes in all ages and sizes, and their duet “You’re Timeless to Me” is one of the highlights of the show. Emmott brings a distinct physicality to the role that is consistent throughout the show and adds depth to Wilbur’s character. He’s amusing and endearing and totally convincing as the father and husband who supports the women in his life wholeheartedly.
Shonda L. Thurman brings incredible singing chops to the stage as Motormouth Maybelle. Her ballad “I Know Where I’ve Been” nearly brought down the house with the thunderous applause following it. Her voice reverberates through the theater and her conviction was evident in every lyric. She is warm in her connections with the teenagers on stage and moves with the confidence and dignity of a diva.
Payton is inspiring as Seaweed, showing off impressive dance moves and reaching out to Tracy while they are both in detention. It’s fun to watch him fall for Penny and to see the two of them create a couple that was sparkling with sexual tension.
AlissaBeth Morton is a stereotypical mean girl as Amber Von Tussle. She has the society-approved good looks and figure, but a mean-spirited and self-absorbed personality. Morton carries herself with just the right amount of prissiness and created an antagonist you loved to hate.
As her mother, Velma, Serena Vesper delivers the racist lines with confidence and invective, creating a contrast to the other mothers in the musical. She is manipulative and sneering, very much wanting to keep things under her control. She sets the stakes with her rendition of “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” a number in which she owned the stage in a commanding fashion.
Joe Niesen’s choreography is complex as might be expected in a show about dancing. Each dance tells its own story and is meant to inspire both the audience and the characters in the show. Niesen brings different flavors to the numbers, contrasting different characters and playing to the strengths of the performers he is working with.
With so many performers on stage, Costume Designer Kristen P. Ahern has her hands full, and she showes off her talent with costumes that painted the stage in bright colors in every scene. The Corny Collins dancers are all in coordinated 60s style dance outfits. Where Ahern especially deserves praise is in the plus-size outfits she designed for the various characters—outfits that complimented them and made them look stunning.
“Hairspray” is two and a half hours with intermission, but it flies by. There is never a moment where things slow down. It is a feel-good musical, subversive in its own way, and still having something to say some thirty years after it first tackled the issues of integration and body image. The cast of Hope Summer Rep’s “Hairspray” may seek first to entertain—and succeed wildly in doing so—but they also invite us to continue the work of integrating our communities, accepting each other no matter what our size, and loving each other for who we are.
It’s an uplifting evening and one well worth the trip to Holland, Michigan.