In Moonlight’s Hairspray, the choreography re-creates those busy-hands, busy-feet dances.
  • In Moonlight’s Hairspray, the choreography re-creates those busy-hands, busy-feet dances.
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In his youth, John Waters watched the Buddy Deane Show, Baltimore’s version of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, on WJZ-TV. For years, both programs had white teenagers only. Deane called his “the Committee.” They were “the nicest kids in town,” he said often, and became the arbiters of fashion, music, and opinion.

They were so unbelievably wholesome that Waters became obsessed. He fantasized “in front of the television every day over the private lives of the Committee.... I’d imagine all sorts of lurid melodrama in their lives; addiction to cough medicine, cockroaches nestling in the girls’ teased hairdos, even stabbings with rat-tail combs.”

The “dance party” began in 1957. In 1964, Deane tried to integrate it. The station, run by Westinghouse, canceled the show. In 1988, Waters embraced his obsession. He made the movie Hairspray, in which Tracy Turnblad, an unlikely heroine, crusades for racial equality in 1962.

She’s marginalized many times over: she isn’t svelte, wears a basketball-sized beehive hairdo, and prefers genuine R&B to white “cover” music. The Corny Collins Show allows blacks on it once a month. Through nonviolent means, Tracy brings democracy to the blonde-dominated program.

The ’60s began in Dallas on November 22, 1963. In a way, Tracy ushers the decade into Baltimore before its time.

She battles racism, social class, and acceptable body types. And she does it without being smug, sanctimonious, or Joan of Arc-y strident.

The Broadway musical (2002), based on the movie, won eight Tony Awards, including best direction by the Old Globe’s Jack O’Brien. The current production, outdoors at the Moonlight, gets the splash and sweep of the original, but misses some of the sizzle.

Best of show: John Vaughan’s choreography precisely re-creates all those horrifying, busy-hands, busy-feet dances: the Mashed Potato, the Jerk, the Swim, the Madison, etc. Many still swear they were a CIA plot to keep teenagers from touching each other on the dance floor. Vaughan turns his performers loose in “I Can Hear the Bells” and “Cooties,” the latter an allegedly infectious disease caught by touching anyone not in the in-crowd.

Randall Hickman (in drag) and Doug Davis aren’t far behind as Tracy’s parents Edna and Wilbur. Their rendition of “You’re Timeless To Me” stops the show — twice. In what must be one of the most aerobic roles in Broadway musical history, Kim Zolozabal’s a nonstop Tracy Turnblad. On opening night she sang fine, if a bit muted. As did others. The sound system had glitches. But the arrangements also tended toward the bland. They lacked the style and bite of the period. Jeanine Robinson, for example, did a decent rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” but it was clear she had the chops, if allowed, to levitate Vista.

What with the Rep’s Tommy, ACT San Diego’s Spring Awakening, and now Moonlight’s Hairspray, I’ve seen an amazing amount of young talent lately. Nick Starkenberg (Link Larkin), Nathan Riley (Seaweed J. Stubbs), Lauren Smolka (Amber Von Tussle), and especially Kristen Lamoureux (as daffy Penny Pingleton) perform like seasoned pros.

Hairspray takes place almost 50 years ago. Uncredited costumes and Byron J. Batista’s excellent hair and wig designs bring the period to life.

“I wanted to write a play about someone who reaches the end of their belief system,” Craig Wright said in an interview, “something that said there is grace, but grace is a lot weirder than we think.”

Among other things, his Grace, currently at Ion Theatre, tears away at “beliefs” in traditional theater. It begins with the ending, gunshots and blackouts. The set (painted institutional cream and nicely replicated by Matt Scott) could work for a play by Alan Ayckbourn: one room becomes two different condos with no wall between. Wright fractures time and space, then proceeds to unhinge beliefs.

Whether it’s religion or real estate, Steve talks like he’s living an epiphany. Developing hotels — his dream’s a gospel-themed chain — also involves “the substance of things not seen.” He has faith that a man he’s never met will float him a loan for millions.

For next-door neighbor Stan and the pest exterminator Karl, the Problem of Evil is not an abstraction. They’ve lived it (Stan lost his fiancée in an accident; Karl lived in Nazi Germany). Steve’s wife, Sara, stands somewhere in between.

In spite of Wright’s attempts to warp time and space, the play’s a bit schematic: all four characters become positions in a debate (and the ultimate “weirdness” could be more convincing). But you can’t fault the performers at Ion.

As Steve, Francis Gercke sustains a manic pitch throughout, as if he bled 5-Hour Energy. Nick Kennedy’s starkly focused Sam is cold, rational, and almost broken — some of his best work to date. Rhianna Basore suggests depths to Sara, underwritten in the script. And Jim Chovik’s cameos as the nihilistic Karl are so exact (and surprisingly funny), it’s hard to conceive of anyone else playing the part. ■

Hairspray, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman
Moonlight Stage Productions, Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace, Vista
Directed by Steve Glaudini; cast: Kim Zolozabal, Randall Hickman, Doug Davis, Neil Starkenberg, Tracy Lore, Jeanine Robinson, David Engel, Sandy Campbell, Lauren Smolka, Nathan Riley, Kristen Lamoureux; lighting, Jean-Yves Tessier; sound, Peter Hashagen; musical director, Elan McMahan
Playing through September 3: Wednesday through Sunday at 8:00 p.m. 760-724-2110.

Grace, by Craig Wright
Ion Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest
Directed by Glenn Paris; cast: Francis Gercke, Nick Kennedy, Rhianna Basore, Jim Chovick; scenic design, Matt Scott; costumes and props, Claudio Raygoza; lighting, Karen Filijian; sound, Melanie Chen
Playing through September 10; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. 619-600-5020

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