SYRACUSE — When I heard that the Syracuse Arts Council was putting on a production of Hairspray, I was excited and a bit apprehensive. Could a small community in rural Utah really tell the story of 1960s Baltimore in the height of the civil rights movement? I was pleased to discover that director LeAnna Hamblin had put together a phenomenal cast of characters that appropriately told the story of accepting differences and change, and most importantly accepting yourself.
Hairspray is a fun-loving, touching musical with a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Based on the 1988 film of the same name, the 2003 Broadway musical became so popular that it inspired a new film, numerous professional and semi-professional productions, and has now made it to the community theatre circuit.
The Syracuse production features the delightful costume design by Rebecca Howe and a nice set design by Jen Rowbury. Notwithstanding the limitations of community theatre, Howe was able to get some fantastic dresses that were appropriate for the time period, with an ideal match of colors, accessories, and characters’ personalities in the clothing. The set added to the color and fun of the musical, and (with the help of the props) added to the show’s overall ambiance.
My favorite part of the production was the use of community talent in assembling a live pit for the production. In several reviews recently, I have mentioned my surprise and disappointment with professional, equity productions that do not have live music as part of their production. Here in Syracuse, conductor Tim Koster brought together 18 musicians to create a strong orchestra that truly added to the experience and showcased the talent available in Northern Utah. I am such an advocate for live music and the asset that it can be to a production.
One of the drawbacks of the show was sound mixing, which may have been due to the sound system available at the high school that hosted the arts council. Several of the characters had microphones that cut out during the performance, and much of the music and dialogue was incomprehensible. Had I not been well versed in the story, I would have been a bit lost. I hope that the technical crew can improve the sound for the remaining shows, which will dramatically improve the quality of the production.
There were several standout performances in the evening. Rylee Jensen was absolutely adorable as the loyal and slightly dimwitted Penny, and she stole my attention in “I Can Hear the Bells,” as well as “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now.” Penny’s story arc also shows some great character development, and Jensen manages to bring that to the forefront. Nash Krutsh, as the smooth singing Seaweed, is an ideal match for Jensen vocally and in stage presence. In “Run and Tell That,” I was impressed with his singing, dancing, and overall portrayal of the role. The actor’s real-life sister Condie Krustch portrays Little Inez with just as much prowess and entertaining flair.
Jake Swensen plays the iconic Edna Turnblad, and he did so with a strong understanding of both the humor of the role and the sensitivity necessary to encompass all of the underlying messages of the story. The song “You’re Timeless to Me,” a duet between Edna and her husband Wilbur (played by Russell Lynch) was a beautiful moment that had the perfect balance of sincerity and entertainment. Motormouth Maybell, played by Seante Nielsen, has two of the most enjoyable and profound songs. She was able to bring the fun and excitement of accepting one’s self in “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful,” and the truth of sticking to one’s convictions in the face of racism, sexism, and prejudice against size, sex, and anything else that makes a person different. Nielsen’s strong voice carried through the auditorium and her conviction to the words she was saying was evident. On the other hand, both Cameron Ropp as Link and Wyatt Welch as Corny performed well as far as I could tell, but it was there characters that suffered the most from the sound malfunctions.
One of the pillars of a successful production of Hairspray is the skill and love of dancing. The cast generally excelled at the choreography by Jamie Godfrey and Mindy Talbot. But while Hannah Beames did a decent job in portraying Tracy Turnblad, one of Tracy’s hallmarks is being a very lively and fantastic dancer, while Beames was merely passable.
Putting aside the challenges in the show, I commend Syracuse Arts Council and their willingness to step outside of the traditional community theatre box and do a show that has an important message in today’s politically charged world. In the future, I hope that many people go and see what a wonderfully diverse and welcoming community Syracuse is, both on and off stage.
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