REVIEW: ISO’s “Hairspray” stands tall

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First, an apology.

Based on previous in-concert productions of musicals offered by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, I fully expected to a) be thoroughly entertained, b) hear top-notch musical theater actors shine, and c) see actors carrying scripts for “Hairspray in Concert” (seen on Jan. 11 with additional shows through the 13th).

Turns out the first two parts aren’t an issue. In fact, two weeks into the new year, I already expect this wildly entertaining production to maintain a spot on my 2013 list of A&E favorites.

As to the scripts, well, that’s standard practice for these concert musicals. One of the conceits of the form here or at New York’s Encores, L.A.’s Reprise and elsewhere is that the minimal rehearsal time–usually just a week or two–is focused on the music. If that means carrying around a binder for an occasional line refresher during the show, so be it. That potential distraction didn’t get in the way of making the ISO’s “Guys and Dolls,” for instance, a landmark in my Indy A&E experiences.

With “Hairspray,” though, the cast works completely off book. And choreographer Jennifer Ladner doesn’t let them off easy as dancers, either, offering full production numbers throughout.

So for perhaps misrepresenting the show in my previews, I apologize.  

You still don’t get much in the way of sets. But I’ll trade sets almost any day for a full orchestra the size and strength of the ISO. A quick count at the Internet Broadway Database indicates that there were only 15 musicians in the pit for the original New York production of “Hairspray”—that’s a garage band compared to the ISO. And good luck trying to find a synthesizer here. The Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman gem of a score for “Hairspray”—one of the brightest and catchiest in years—has been recorchestrated for the symphony, sounding as innocent, brassy, and confident as the show’s lead character.

I’ve seen “Hairspray” work even with a less-than-ideal Tracy at its core. It's that good of a show. But here, it has a near-ideal one. Marissa Perry, a vet of the Broadway production, never forgets the energy, warmth and spirit at the core of her character. She needs to be a person whose feet can’t help but move to the beat, whether anyone else can hear it or not. As vibrant and alive when she’s dancing in the background as she is belting out a solo tune, Perry is a smile throughout, giving no reason to doubt that hearththrob Link is nuts about her.

The supporting cast and dancers all have opportunities to shine. Paul Vogt, as Edna, knows how to get laughs from just picking up the phone—and seems to fully understand that this big mamma’s developing acceptance of herself is one of the show’s charms. NaTasha Yvette Williams has both the vocal chops and the gravitas to deliver the powerful “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Nick Adams (so much fun on Broadway in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”) makes for a likable Link who knows how to move. And Beth Leavel turns what the one-note evil TV producer Velma von Tussle and her “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs” number into a show highlight. As Tracy's father, Micky Dolenz is, well, Micky Dolenz. And that’s just fine.

I was a little concerned going in about John Waters serving as narrator for the show. But Waters, the writer/director of the original film, is used judiciously. His insight into the real-life people and places that inspired this Baltimore fantasy—and his acknowledgment of the harsher reality truer to the era between Elvis and the Beatles—give the production an added perspective without diminishing its pleasures.

I’d write more but I’m on my way back to see it again tonight. Yes, it’s that much fun.

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