Thursday, February 06, 2014

The White Rhino Flips His Wig Over Wheelock Family Theatre's Production of "Hairspray: Not A Hair Out Of Place!

Cast of Wheelock Family Theater's
Photo by Gary Ng
I tend to think of the landscape of Boston area theater as a mosaic composed of fascinating individual tiles of many shapes and sizes. Seen together, they glisten and shine and add  enormous value to the quality of life we get to live here in the Hub.  One of those vital tiles in the mosaic is Wheelock Family Theatre.   Now in its 33rd season on the campus of Wheelock College, the theatre provides wholesome family entertainment that is professional in quality in every aspect.

I took in the current production of "Hairspray" with a guest who attends live theater performances only rarely.  He loved this show. Knowing that I see a great deal of live theater - here in  Boston, in New York, in London and elsewhere - he asked: "What did you think?"

"Well, I am beginning to consider how I will write a review of the performance that we just witnessed.  It is usually pretty easy for me to convey an overall impression, to highlight strengths, and to point out a few areas where things could have been improved.  I am struggling to think of anything I would change about this production.  It is fabulous in every aspect."

He continued his inquiry: "When you find things wrong with a production or a performance, what kinds of issues do you notice?"

"Well, in a cast as large as this one, there are often a handful of actors who are missing something and stand out from an otherwise excellent troupe - maybe their voice is not up to snuff, or their dancing, of their facial expression or their presence on stage.  Often, a talented actor is miscast and is not believable in the role he is playing.  Sometimes,  especially if the budgets are tight, the scenery or lighting or music or costumes can leave something to be desired.  In this case, they nailed it!  Every member of this cast belongs on that stage and owns their moments in the spotlight.  The singing, dancing, choreography, music, lighting, costumes, the band, the direction, the blocking, the use of the whole auditorium to engage the audience - everything works to near perfection!"

I had the privilege of seeing the original Broadway production of "Hairspray" starring Harvey Fierstein as Edna.  I loved the show.  But I love this production even more.  I do not recall feeling a tingling in my spine and experiencing the sudden appearance of tears in my eyes when I listened to "I Can Hear the Bells" on Broadway.  I felt both at Wheelock.

I have already mentioned that there are no weak links among the cast.  Let me highlight a few of the principals who knocked my socks off and made my hair stand on end!:

Jenna Lea Scott as Tracy Turnblad is a wonder in this role.  She not only wins the heart of heart-throb, Link Larkin, and integrates Baltimore live TV, she also wins the heart of every audience member. It is she who moved me to tears in the wonderfully staged sequence of "I Can Hear The Bells."

Robert Saoud as Tracey's mother, Edna Turnblad, is larger than life in every sense of that phrase.  He is completely believable as the house-bound, housecoat-wearing plus-sized woman who has allowed life to swallow here up as she swallows ever-increasing amounts of food.  Her transformation, inspired by Tracy's  courage to put herself "out there" is wondrous.  Her entrance and her star turn in "You Can't Stop The Beat" is worth the price of admission!

Robert Saoud as Edna Turnblad
Peter A. Carey as Wilbur Turnblad
Photo by Gary Ng

Peter A. Carey is equally effective as Tracy's father, Wilbur Turnblad.  He runs a Joke Shop downstairs from their Baltimore apartment.  He is the catalyst who not only blows helium into party balloons, but puffs up Tracy to give her the courage to take some risks.  His duet with Edna, "You're Timeless To Me" is a delight.

Jennifer Beth Glick as Tracy's  best friend, Penny Pingleton, is a wonderful Yin to Tracy's Yang.  Her transformation from the geeky, stringy-haired outcast into a confident young woman is triggered by discovering love in a very unexpected place.

Aimee Doherty as Velma Von Tussle is the very soul of archness and subterfuge.  As producer of The Corny  Collins Show, she will do anything to promote her daughter, Amber.  Her send-up of the song, "Miss Baltimore Crabs" is a Master Class in comedic acting and singing.

Mark Linehan as Corny Collins is well cast.  His smarmy charm is a mile wide and a millimeter deep.  He sets just the right tone in the early ironic anthem, "The Nicest Kids In Town."

Michael Notardonato has set the bar high for anyone who ever wants to play Link Larkin in the future.  This Boston Conservatory student had each of the adolescent young ladies in the audience longingly leaning towards the stage each time he opened his mouth to speak or sing, and each time he ran his fingers through his Brylcreemed hair or swiveled his hips.  His flip-flop of affections between Amber and Tracy provides a cautionary tale.  His duet with Tracy, "It Takes Two" is a highlight of the show.  This Elvis-want-to-be turns the Wheelock Theatre auditorium into Heartbreak Hotel.

Jane Bernhard brings an appropriate pouting nastiness to the thankless role of Amber, who is the foil for much of Tracy's contrasting nobility.  She shines in the mother-daughter number, "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now."

Gamalia Pharms as Motormouth Maybelle is the Ebony to Edna's Ivory.  Her character speaks in rhyme and sings Gospel with an infectious rhythm.  She leads the "congregation" in the soaring "I Know Where I've Been," and suddenly it feels like we are all - cast and audience members alike - in church.  Her majestic voice and overflowing heart fill the room and make it glow.

Jon Allen as Seaweed J. Stubbs inexplicably falls for mousy Penny and gives her a new sense of what is possible - in her life and in a world willing to accept change.  His voice and stage presence add a great deal to the number, "Without Love."

Director Susan Kosoff, Choreographer Laurel Conrad, Musical Director Matthew Stern, Set Designer Janie E. Howland, Costume Designer Lisa Simpson, Lighting Designer Scott Clyve have collaborated synergistically in the design of this production..  They have woven together their singular talents and artistry in a very impressive way. The final product is a rich tapestry of a production that both challenges and delights audience members of all ages.

"Hairspray" is funny, but it treats with serious issues of racism and sexism and bullying of those who are somehow "different."  The message comes across loud and clear; it is OK to be different, and we need to learn to accept one another despite our differences.  The story is set in 1962, when I myself was the age of Tracy and Penny and Amber and Link and Seaweed.  So I appreciate more than most the cultural references to Lassie and Khrushchev and Mamie Eisenhower and Cuba.  The show is completely suitable for children, but there are clever allusions and double entendres that float over the heads of the kids and add a layer of spice to adults who are listening closely.

This show is a total delight.  It runs through February 23.  And you should run right out to buy tickets (or click on the link below).





The Broadway Musical

January 24 - February 23, 2014

Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan. Music by Marc Shaiman.
Lyrics by Scott Wittman & Marc Shaiman
Based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters.
Directed by Susan Kosoff. Musical Director: Matthew Stern. Scenic design by Janie Howland. Choreography by Laurel Conrad. Lighting by Scott Clyve. Costume Design by Lisa Simpson.
Featuring Jenna Lea Scott as Tracy Turnblad, Bob Saoud as Edna Turnblad, Peter Carey as Wilbur Turnblad.
Hairspray speaks to a whole generation of "upstarts" who marched for civil rights in the 1960’s. Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big dreams, wins a dancing role on her favorite TV program, the popular Corny Collins Show. Some question her casting, yet she becomes a celebrity overnight! Frustrated with the producer’s refusal to integrate the dance floor daily, Tracy draws on her own struggles with prejudice to lead the charge for change. "You Can’t Stop The Beat" encapsulates an era that brought monumental changes through song, dance and the courage of a few. Hairspray is in part a social commentary but also an exuberant musical about a young girl who inspires a community to come together!
Wheelock Family Theatre is a professional, non-profit theatre associated with Actor’s Equity, the union of professional actors and stage managers. Located on the campus of Wheelock College, Wheelock Family Theatre seeks to improve the lives of children and families through the shared experience of live theatre.
Since 1981, Wheelock Family Theatre has interpreted every production in American Sign Language for patrons who are deaf. WFT was one of the first theatres in the country to audio-describe productions for patrons who are blind and the first to open caption all performances for patrons who are hard of hearing. WFT was instrumental in introducing these services and new technologies to other professional theatres in Boston. Access is not limited to our audiences—actors who are blind, deaf, and physically disabled are given unprecedented performance opportunities on our stage.
Recommended for adults, teens and youth 9+.


January 24 - February 23, 2014
Friday nights at 7:30; Saturday & Sunday Matinees at 3:00
School vacation week matinees at 1:00 (Tue 2/18-Fri 2/21)
10am school performances: January 30, February 4, February 12
ASL/Audio-description: February 12, February 21, February 23
Audio-description: February 18
All performances offer Open Captioning
  • Tickets: $20-$35
  • Box Office: 617-879-2300;
  • Website:
  • Location: 180 The Riverway on the campus of Wheelock College in Boston’s Fenway district
  • Parking: Discounted parking at MASCO garage at 375 Longwood Avenue
  • MBTA: Fenway or Longwood on Green Riverside Line (D train); CT busses to Beth Israel
  • Access: The Theatre is wheelchair accessible. All performances are Open Captioned. Scheduled performances are interpreted in American Sign Language and Audio-described. Select performances are relaxed for patrons with sensory sensitivities. Braille programs and audio-enhancement receivers are available upon request.
Hairspray Tickets

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