Review: 'Hairspray' by Landmark Community Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

“I think the theater going community will consider this show to be one of the best Landmark Community Theatre has ever produced. Not because of me, but because of the actors, the characters, and the story.” - Marissa Perry

Thomaston Opera House, Thomaston, CT - I was invited to attend the final dress rehearsal of the big production of Landmark Community Theatre’s ‘Hairspray’ that will open at the Thomaston Opera House this weekend. There is a multitude of big talent, big hair held up with lots of hairspray and incredibly big choreography. This production is so strong that I felt like I was sitting in a Broadway theater in the middle of Thomaston.

There is a Broadway connection to the production because the show is directed by none other than Marissa Follo Perry, who starred as Tracy Turnblad in the Broadway production of ‘Hairspray.’ She returns to Thomaston after directing last season’s excellent ‘Sister Act,’ for which she was an ensemble member of the original Broadway cast. She obviously brings to her direction and choreography a deep understanding of this very American musical with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Mr. Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan that is based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name.

Ms. Perry believes that “Hairspray is one of the most perfectly written pieces of musical theater there is. This show evokes a ton of different emotions. [She] loves when people are surprised at feeling moved emotionally through this show because they come in expecting a show full of pink glitter, big hair, and 60's music... it IS that, but it is so much more.” What I saw at this final rehearsal was all of the above.

To get that emotion, Perry had her cast focus on the inner truths of the characters; “these characters are based on real people. They are your neighbors, your friends, your parents, and your children.” The members of this large cast that fills the little jewel of a stage at the TOH when they dance together captured the essence of their characters, some with hilarious results.

‘Hairspray’ is set in 1962 Baltimore (“Good Morning Baltimore”) where 60’s dance music is the rage and segregation is firmly implanted. The unlikely heroine is Tracy, a quirky plus-sized teenager who yearns to dance on a hit television program. When Tracy wins a coveted spot on “The Corny Collins Show,” she becomes an overnight celebrity. With her overwhelming positivity and a strong sense of self, she attracts the eye of the most popular guy on the show, Link Larkin, much to the chagrin of the vapid Amber Von Tussle, the daughter of the show’s racist producer Velma. Tracy joins with her friends to advocate for the show to be fully integrated. All ages can appreciate and enjoy this colorful musical where this is plenty of laughter, love and embracing who we are.

I was impressed by the spirited choreography that was based on the original Broadway moves. The staging of “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now” was unlike anything I have ever seen; the three sets of mother and daughters rotated around the stage and it was very effective. The Dynamites, portrayed here by three wonderful singers, are usually dressed in red, but these three are dressed in pink peplum dresses to match the rest of the characters in “Welcome to the Sixties” in front of Mr. Pinky’s. I liked this small change.

Programs were not ready for the rehearsal I attended, so I am only able to mention the members of the cast that I could recognize, along with a few I could find online. I apologize to those not mentioned by name.

CJ Barber stars in the role that Ms. Perry played in New York; all I could think as I watched this fabulous and adorable young teen onstage was “no pressure!” I almost didn’t recognize her when she entered with the iconic ratted hair, but as she hit her first few notes there was no doubt in my mind that Ms. Barber ('The Happy Elf’) was back on the TOH stage. She appears in just about every scene and never lost the quirkiness that I have grown to love. She never missed a single dance step and has the vocal pipes to be the perfect Tracy Turnblad. Although I did not get to catch one of the director's performances as Tracy, I was struck by how much CJ reminded me of a slightly younger version of the bundle of energy that is Ms. Perry.

Tyler Caisse plays the heartthrob Link Larkin. This young man has the look for the role and keeps up with Tracy well. Kevin Pelkey is big, blondish and beautiful as Edna Turnblad but doesn’t cross the line to unbelievable, nor does the actor who portrays her adoring husband Wilbur.

Moses Beckett is a natural to play the role of the hunky Seaweed. He sings wonderfully and handles all of the dancing with ease, now “Run And Tell That.” Peter Bard is perfect as the glib television host Corney Collins that keeps track of “The Nicest Kids in Town.” Stephanie Veranelli-Miles is a petite Velma Von Tussle with a powerhouse voice. Dianna Waller made me laugh every time she made her entrance as the female authority figure, but I think my favorite was Penny Pingleton’s mother. When I saw Chuck Stango in a raincoat before the rehearsal began, I knew that he would be the male authority figure. I learned that he was a last minute addition to the cast, but you would never know it from the very funny characters that he portrays throughout the two acts.

The actress playing Motormouth Maybelle almost brings down the house with “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a number that takes on more meaning every time I hear it performed. I loved the performance of the young lady who portrayed the geeky Penny; she is simply hysterical and always in character. I spotted Jonathan Zalaski as Nice Kid Fender, and Little Inez will be portrayed by the adorable and very talented WAMS student Dania Fedrick, a former student of mine. I was so proud to see her holding her own with this stage full of stars.

Joshua Viltrakis has the privilege of serving as assistant director to Ms. Perry.  The offstage band sounded professional and wonderful. The always colorful costumes brought everyone in the cast back to the sixties (“Welcome to the Sixties”) and my favorites are too many to list. The set was not completely finished, but everything I saw looked great. Lighting was good and sound was almost flawless.

This production comes with a great pedigree and is one not to be missed, but tickets are selling fast.

Landmark Community Theatre brings the 2003 Tony award winning Broadway musical ‘Hairspray’ to the mainstage at the Thomaston Opera House, showing April 29, May 5, 6, 12, 13 at 8pm and April 30, May 7, 14 at 2pm. Photo by Lisa Cherie Photography

Nancy Sasso Janis is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and continues to contribute theatre news to local sites. Check out her new Facebook page Nancy Sasso Janis: Theatre Reviewer and follow her on Twitter @nancysjanis417