- Associate Connecticut Theatre Critic
Welcome to the neighborhood, Shoreline Theatre Company. Unlike the Maryland community where “Hairspray” is set, the shoreline of Connecticut (Branford, Guilford, Madison and into New Haven County) isn’t particularly known for rats or flashers or barstool bums. It isn’t particularly known for active community theater either. While other parts of Connecticut have thriving theater scenes, the shoreline has always seemed strangely hesitant to join into that conversation. There are exceptions of course (like the Roundtable Players and the Whitney Players), but a gap for great summer community theater in this neck of the woods is surely present. In comes the Shoreline Theatre Company [STC], a brand-new group making a big splash of a debut with “Hairspray,” which played June 29 and 30 at the Branford High School auditorium.
The tuneful and bright “Hairspray” (music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan) is the perfect choice for STC to launch their company. It allows for a large, multi-generational cast (I counted close to sixty), lots of dancing and plenty of time-tested, family-friendly jokes. But “Hairspray” is also a lovely happy medium between silly song-and-dance fair and more mature, politically charged theater. It’s not “Angels In America,” but “Hairspray” uses immensely hummable songs to tell a timely tale of tolerance, one that feels particularly needed right about now.
For those unfamiliar (which is difficult given the two films, live TV broadcast and countless stage productions), “Hairspray” concerns 1960s teenager Tracy Turnblad (Kaila D’Elia, in fine vocal form for her leading lady debut), who has big hair and even bigger dreams. She fantasizes about dancing on “The Corny Collins Show,” an “American Bandstand”-esque program featuring squeaky-clean performers like the bratty Amber (Maddie Oberempt) and vain heartthrob Link (Emmett Cassidy). Of course, Tracy quickly ends up on the show much to the chagrin of elitist stage mother and TV producer Velma (Kelsey Mulligan, who has rock solid comic timing and a wicked belt). Once on the “Collins” show, Tracy turns her attention to racially integrate the program. Before she was cast, talented black kids like Seaweed (Tyheed Scurry) and his kid sister Inez (Kassidy Planas) were relegated to the monthly ‘colored day’ broadcasts (a phrase slightly sanitized from the original).
The toe-tapping pastiche score and the story – teeming with lessons about racial inclusivity, open-mindedness, and body positivity – elevates what could be a fun-but-slight comedy into one of the best musicals to come out of the 2000s. It’s presented here with a lot of personalities and exuberant energy, plenty enough to smooth out some of the production’s rougher moments.
With such a large cast, Colin Sheehan’s staging is frequently more focused on organizing traffic patterns than developing inventive or memorable stage pictures, although he does make good use of the space in front of the proscenium. Especially in the big musical numbers, it’s often unclear where our focus should be (which is undoubtedly less of a concern for the myriad of enthusiastic family members in attendance). The microphones were uncooperative and unbalanced, while opening night jitters seemed to permeate the show. Scenes changes were slow and the excellent live band (under Mike Martone Jr.’s direction) sped through much of the first act.
I don’t say that to Grinch out on a community theater company that puts on a two-and-a-half-hour show in about a month. There was much to love at “Hairspray” and my sincere hope is that any constructive feedback is used to strengthen the already-sturdy foundation of STC as it continues to grow and mature for many years to come.
What doesn’t need much fine-tuning is the talented singers and performers on display. Tyheed Scurry has smooth vocals and overflowing charisma while Taryn Broughal plays his “checkerboard chick” Penny with enjoyably gawky, pubescent energy (Laura Sue Melilo is a hoot as her squawking mother). Speaking of parents, Kelly Patrick Stockwell, in hairnet-and-housecoat drag, and Jon Firman have an entertaining, easygoing chemistry as Tracy’s parents. Emmett Cassidy sings his matinee-idol songs in a finessed tenor that brought to mind “Memphis”-era Chad Kimball, even if he would be better suited to the quirky DJ in that show than the dim-but-goodhearted Link. The ensemble, under Paola Rarick’s choreography, sparkled with some talented teens (like Jeniffer Marino San, Alexandra Hernandez and Jayleen Flores as the Dynamite girl-group and Bobby Olejarczyk who could have lit the auditorium with the amount of goofball energy he put into “Collins” dancer IQ).
The show is largely stolen, though, by two actors. Scott A. Towers turned the relatively bland character of Corny Collins into a preening comedic highlight while Lisa Foster Wilson gave a grounded and strong portrayal of activist and DJ Motormouth Maybelle. Wilson’s vocals are also impeccable – soulful and full of original, tasteful, bluesy runs. Her standout song “I Know Where I’ve Been” is also the most powerful moment in “Hairspray,” one proceeded by Maybelle telling her son and his white girlfriend that “love is a gift from above, but not everyone remembers that. So, you two better brace yourselves for a whole lotta ugly comin' at you from a never-ending parade of stupid.” It may have been “You Can’t Stop The Beat” that received a standing ovation, but it was the lyrics and delivery of “I Know Where I’ve Been” that resonated most with me that night.
Surely it’s true of our national politics, but it’s a lesson equally powerful to any of us who make art. The road may be tough and you may stumble time and time again, but if you learn from your mistakes, build a tribe of like-minded individuals, mentor those who came before and use your voice for good, you have the possibility to make the world a little brighter. With so much potential on that stage and a much-needed message in the air, it’s pretty impossible to leave this particular “Hairspray” without a smile.
“Hairspray” ran June 29 and 30 in Branford, CT. For more information on the Shoreline Theatre Company, visit their Facebook page.
Noah Golden is an associate theater critic and columnist for OnStage based near New Haven, CT. Throughout his life, he has been involved in many facets of theater from acting to directing to playing drums in the pit. When not in or writing about theater, Noah is a video producer and editor. Twitter: @NoahTheGolden