Coming back to the upbeat and feverishly happy Good Company Players production of “Hairspray,” which returns after two years to Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, is like meeting up for dinner with old friends.
Chief among them is Richard Ruth, whose return romp as the super-size Edna Turnblad is a stellar performance indeed. When Ruth tackled the role in the 2009 GCP production, I liked the way he gave the role — traditionally played by a man dressed as a woman — a spin all his own. I wrote there was a hint of Harvey Fierstein there, of course, but what I liked so much about Ruth’s portrayal was how straight he plays the role (so to speak): no flouncing, no vocal tricks, no mugging.
His characterization is just as good this time around — maybe even better. He might not be awash in a sea of fat padding, but Edna’s big, buoyant spirit is abundant.
Pictured: Tori Sasso and Charlene Cano in the new Good Company Players production of “Hairspray,” which runs through March 18.
In terms of Fred Bologna’s direction and the look, feel and spirit of the show, little is changed from the 2009 production. Along with Ruth, many cast members return as well, including an appealing Ashley Wilkinson in the central role of Tracy Turnblad, the indefatigable chubby Baltimore teen whose one and only goal in life is to get a spot on a local TV dance show. Along the way Tracy cheerfully bats aside issues about her weight while taking a good-natured stand in support of racial equality.
Wilkinson has an infectious spirit on stage, whether it’s falling in love on the spot with the hunky Link Larkin (a well-sung Cody Bianchi) or picking up the latest dance moves in school detention from new friend Seaweed Stubbs (Chente Cervantes, whose fluid moves on stage are terrific).That detention scene, in fact, is one of the early highlights of the show, capturing the musical’s giddy sense of forging new frontiers. Wilkinson has a sly, wiggly sense of comic timing that is often adorable.
In terms of vocals, Wilkinson does have a nice voice, but it’s never been the booming belt one associates with the Tracy role. What disappointed me at the Friday performance of opening weekend was issues with sound in the first act, which left Tracy’s rousing lyrics partially submerged by the ensemble and the recorded music. It was also difficult at times to understand Peter Allwine’s Corny Collins, most of whose dialogue is already “ramped up” as broadcast speak. In such a small house, a priority should be put on mixing Wilkinson’s vocals in a way that makes her the completely dominant centerpiece of such numbers as “Good Morning, Baltimore.”
Even local theater veteran Janet Glaude’s vocals in the first act as the anthem-belting Motormouth Maybelle were impacted by the sound woes, which thankfully got much better in the second act.
Standouts in the cast include Tori Sasso’s strong turn as the geeky sidekick Penny Pingleton, Rich Burt as the sweet-natured Wilbur Turnblad, Allwine as the socially aware Corny and Charlene Cano in multiple roles as Mrs. Pingleton, the Gym Teacher and the Matron. (Cano particularly shines in the second-act opener, “The Big Dollhouse.”)
And my anticipation was rewarded with the emotional high point of the show, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” belted out by the superb Glaude.
Bologna, who choreographed the show with Julie Lucido, makes dancing front and center in the show, which is to be expected, and the ensemble members deliver with fire in their toes, though I thought that “Good Morning, Baltimore” and “The Nicest Kids in Town” didn’t have quite the opening oomph they needed from a dance standpoint.
David Pierce’s clever set is as effective as ever, captures the show’s color palette with a crisp vibe, complemented by Andrea Henrickson’s lighting design. Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes — from the slender suits worn by the dance-show ensemble to Edna’s outrageous garb — seem even more fun and sparkly than before.
Does this “Hairspray” have as great a hold on the audience as the 2009 production? It’s probably impossible for me to say, because some of the novelty is gone. I seem to remember that first GCP show is being a little more crisp, with a little more sizzle, than this incarnation. But if you think of it in terms of the dinner analogy, there’s a deep pleasure in reconnecting with old friends. “Hairspray” is a show that will send you out of the theater with happy, dancing feet.