Three cheers for the guy in the straitjacket.
That would be Allen Gaertig, who probably wasn’t expecting to be singled out in the first paragraph of my review of Good Company’s third incarnation of “Hairspray.” (The show continues through May 19 at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater.)
Pictured above: The cast of ‘Hairspray,’ including Allen Gaertig, singled out by the very big, blue arrow. Photo: Good Company Players
Gaertig, an ensemble member who helps open the show in “Good Morning, Baltimore” conspicuously wrapped in restraints, made me smile. So does a lot about this production. Here’s a review rundown:
The storyline: Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a plus-sized high-school girl in 1962 Baltimore dreams of being on the city’s popular “American Bandstand”-style dance show. Though her mother warns that “girls like her” never end up with 1) the starring role; 2) the hot guy; or 3) the top spot in the social strata, Tracy Turnblad is undeterred. Along the way she fights for racial integration and togetherness in a time when Nikita Khrushchev is banging his shoe on the table.
The leading lady: This is the third time over the years at GCP I’ve seen Ashley Wilkinson give it her all as the big-hearted Tracy, and each time, she finds something sweet and new in the role. Her vocals soar, her comic timing is great and her unflappability is endearing. I think that for Tracy (and this idealized, doo-wop-fantasy of a show) to work, there can be no hint of grievance or resentment in her core DNA. And we should never feel pity for her, and no outrage, either. It’s like all of us involved in the experience, from actors to audience members, have a tacit agreement to shut out the real world (aka human nature) for a couple of hours and focus on what could be. (Indeed, there’s only one moment in the script, when Tracy whines to her mother about getting tossed in jail, that this compact is broken.) Wilkinson, as Tracy, accepts her character’s big breaks and upward social climb as if they are the most natural thing in the world, and that’s what makes the story special.
The acting and singing, Part 1: Steve Souza is endearing as Edna (a role traditionally played by a man in drag), so much so that I sort of think him now as being Edna. (Forget Harvey Fierstein’s gravelly excess and John Travolta’s impish weirdness; this Edna feels like a Mom.) The mega-talented Meg Clark has fun playing way older with her (mostly) malevolent Velma. Brian Rhea is a sweetheart as Wilbur, Tracy’s dad. Alex Figueroa is suave as Link, the object of Tracy’s infatuation, and Mallory Parker is beautifully bitchy as her arch-nemesis, Amber. Nirina Rabetsimba is strong as Little Inez. And I want to give a shout-out to the “Nicest Kids in Town,” the perky ensemble that makes up the cast of “The Corny Collins Show.”
The standout moment: Janet Glaude’s rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” is, in my opinion, as powerful and moving as any Motormouth Maybelle I’ve seen — whether on Broadway, on tour or the big screen. It’s glorious.
The acting and singing, Part 2: Kindle Lynn Cowger delivers powerful vocals as Tracy’s sidekick, Penny, though she sometimes played her character’s over-the-top klutziness too broadly for the size of the hall on the night I saw her. Jacob Phelen is a deft Corny Collins, but I kept wanting a little less sweet and a little more growl. And young Xavier Gonzalez shows a lot of promise as Seaweed Stubbs; his dance moves (choreographed by Souza) were top-notch at the opening-weekend performance I saw, but he still seemed tentative in the role in terms of vocals and stage presence.
The creative team: Director Elizabeth Fiester fits more people on the tiny Roger Rocka’s stage than I thought humanly possible, yet the production doesn’t feel crowded. (Most of the time.) While many of the big ensemble numbers are stellar (see below), “Welcome to the ‘60s” falls a little flat. And the ending of the show unfolds in what feels like a rush, with little drama or room for the comic moments to breathe. (This is not the first time I’ve felt this way about the finale of “Hairspray.”) Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s early ‘60s costumes are terrific, David Pierce’s sets colorful and clever, and Andrea Henrickson’s lighting design bright and bouncy.
The best ensemble number: In this production, “I Can Hear the Bells” snuck up on me and walked away with favorite status. Each exaggerated pose and silly grin among the ensemble members made me smile. It’s corny without being overbearing. And with Wilkinson’s charming delivery, the song captures the warmth that is the foundation of the show.
The straitjacket: Ah, yes, the straitjacket. One of the joys of live theater is seeing a show for the umpteenth time and finding an aspect of it– sometimes it’s a big, grand theme, other times it happens in a flash — that just makes you, well, happy. Such is the case with Gaertig and his very long sleeves. He, along with his fellow denizens of the streets of Baltimore — the bum on the bar room stool, the flasher who lives next door — might not have much, but he’s happy to greet the day along with Tracy. So what if he can’t wave his arms to the music along with everyone else? He can still bob his head back and forth. When you live in a musical, sometimes that’s all you need.