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Saturday, Apr. 30, 2016

'Hairspray' is fun frolic -- with a message

Thursday, February 10, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS -- My favorite thing about live theater is that you can go into a show with a totally preconceived notion and come out with a whole different opinion.

I'd never seen the play "Hairspray," so I was excited to see it at Beef & Boards in Indianapolis. I had watched the movie before ... at least parts of it.

I knew very little about it, other than it focused on a self-proclaimed "pleasantly plump" teenager, Tracy Turnblad, and her desire to dance on a Baltimore-based version of "American Bandstand" called "The Corny Collins Show."

I'm used to seeing great shows at Beef & Boards, but I was completely blown away by this one.

To make any production of "Hairspray" a success, the actress in the role of Tracy has to be beyond phenomenal -- and Jill Sullivan was.

From the first moments of the play, when Tracy was alone onstage singing "Good Morning Baltimore" from her bed, Sullivan had me hooked. She was adorable, and she had an unbelievable voice.

Tracy carries a whole lot of this show, and Sullivan never once backed down from that challenge. Her energy as she sang and danced some very difficult numbers remained up and flawless throughout the entire production.

But as is the case with most shows I end up loving, it was the strong ensemble that made me adore this one.

"Hairspray" is based on a 1988 John Waters film. In that movie, Tracy's overweight mother Edna, who hasn't left the Turnblad apartment for years, was played by Divine -- a well-known actor, singer and drag queen.

Since then, it has become tradition that the role of Edna be played by a man in drag (John Travolta played the role in the 2007 remake of the film, and Harvey Fierstein was the first to play Edna on Broadway).

In the Beef & Boards production, Dan Dowling Jr. brings Edna to dazzling, queen-sized life.

I especially loved Edna in her scenes with her husband Wilbur, played by John Vessels. They were so well matched, and had amazing onstage chemistry. Their duet, "(You're) Timeless to Me," was one of my favorite parts of the show.

Dowling was so good my husband actually asked on the way home if it was "a guy in a dress."

Other standouts in the fantastic cast were Carly Vernon as Tracy's best friend, the mousy Penny Lou Pingleton; Jarvis B. Manning Jr. as Seaweed J. Stubbs; Angeal Birchett as Motormouth Maybelle; Teanna Berry, Shelese Franklin and Gnomi Gre as members of the African-American girl singing group Dynamite; and Lindsay Alissa Porter as Little Inez.

Julia Harkey was great as Tracy's nemesis, the mean Amber Von Tussle, and Carol Worcell put in a great turn as Amber's racist, snooty mother Velma, but they weren't my favorites.

That wasn't their fault, though ... I just didn't like their characters.

But I suppose that's a compliment, because I wasn't supposed to.

Despite her size, Tracy manages to become a dancer on "The Corny Collins Show," as well as to wrest a handsome boyfriend, Link Larkin (played with considerable aplomb by Sam Weber), away from beautiful but bratty Amber.

She becomes the spokeswoman for local plus-size dress shop "The Hefty Hideaway," and gains popularity at school.

The play is a feel-good vehicle for girls everywhere who aren't a size 6, but who have good hearts and a lot to offer the world.

The play is a lot of fun.

It has colorful, flashy dance numbers, pop- and rhythm and blues-inspired songs and wild, period appropriate costumes.

But it also has teachable moments.

The play is set in June of 1962 -- a time when the world was a whole different place than it is now.

For the first time in his life, my 8-year-old son heard the word "segregation," and heard African-Americans referred to as "colored" (hearing the word used still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up).

One of the main plot points of "Hairspray" is that African-Americans are only allowed to dance one day a month on "The Corny Collins Show" -- and that day is dubbed "Negro Day" (another word my son had never heard).

Tracy Turnblad receives detention at school frequently, usually for "inappropriate hair height."

While there, she meets African-American dancer Seaweed J. Stubbs and several of his friends, who teach Tracy some new moves.

Tracy also meets Seaweed's mother, Motormouth Maybelle, the proprietor of a local R & B record shop. Tracy and Penny become friends with Seaweed, his family and friends (Penny and Seaweed, in fact, become a couple), and Tracy becomes determined to integrate "The Corny Collins Show."

Tracy stages a rally to protest segregation, and she, her mother, Penny, Maybelle and several others end up in jail. Everyone is bailed out but Tracy, who has been ordered (courtesy of Velma's machinations) held without bond.

With Link's help, Tracy manages to break out of jail, and she gets to the set of "The Corny Collins Show" just in time to see it integrated and to participate with the rest of the cast in the closing number.

It's rare that you can find something so entertaining that also has a social message, but "Hairspray" delivers.

"Hairspray" is onstage now at Beef & Boards Dinner Theater, which is located at 9301 N. Michigan Road, Indianapolis. Tickets range in price from $36 to $59, and include a buffet dinner.

For pricing or more information on any show at Beef & Boards, call the box office from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays or 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays at (317) 872-9664.