Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Of Drag I Sing!

(The finale of "Hairspray" at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Photo by Kathy Sandham.)
You might as well don your lime-green flip flops and ride your Schwinn over to Beck Center's production of "Hairspray." The evening overflows with pleasures akin to a tall glass of strawberry-watermelon Crystal Lite on a humid summer day - wonderfully refreshing in myriad fruity, artificial ways. This 2002 musical is taken from John Waters' 1988 ode to chubby girl-power, desegregation and early '60s fashion faux pas. Waters is America's own heart-of-gold cinematic flasher, sort of a Tourette Norman Rockwell indulging in pastel,  subversive Americana ranging from drag-queen housewives to pink flamingos, all utilized to champion the obese and disenfranchised.

After almost a decade, "Hairspray" is joining the ranks of "Bye Bye Birdie" as a perennial, warm-hearted teen romp spawning a superb movie adaptation and endless productions from civic centers to summer camps. Thanks to Martin Cespedes' homage-laden musical staging giddily merged with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's popsical score, the evening takes on the aura of a summer costume party, which is wildly appropriate in a show whose Big Mama is in reality a Big Papa. What makes the show so charming is the effortless manner in which it combines the bubble-gum fantasies of a fat girl who wants to dance on a fictionalized teenage TV dance show with the historical urgency of the early '60s Civil Rights movement, pulling off that rare tightrope walk of being profoundly silly.

(Tracy Turnblad's older sister, that forgotten inamorata of the '70s and '80s, better known as Linda Ronstadt.)
The most felicitous aspect of the Beck Center realization is the way every cast member suggests a past icon and every dance seems reminiscent of a beach-party movie, a cut scene from "Birdie" or a Michael Kidd frolic out of "L'il Abner." In synch with this approach is our heroine, Tracy Turnblad, played with melting ardor by one Brittany Lynne Eckstrom, who could be Linda Ronstadt's chubby little sister. In the same costume-party mode, Kevin Joseph Kelly's Edna Turnblad evokes Ernest Borgnine as McHale dressed for the Navy Drag Ball. Continuing the merry masquerade, we have a TV-show host, Corny Collins, played by a Pee-Wee Herman look-alike named Matthew Ryan Thompson; a teen hero, Link Larkin, played by Cody Zak as a lithe, young Val Kilmer; and a gospel diva, Motormouth Maybelle, played by Tina D. Stump as a jubilant cross between Hattie McDaniel and Aretha Franklin. And for pure comic eccentricity and charm, we have Anna Bradley's Penny Pingleton, looking like an eroticized Pippi Longstocking filching the evening with every gigantic crack of her bubble gum.

This is not to be thought of merely as an evening of period laughing gas. For the show, particularly in this incarnation, cherishes the Waters template of tolerance and inclusion, offering the same kind of delicious paradox as finding Granny in her bustier baking legendary apple pies in a leather bar.

"Hairspray" runs at Beck Center through Sunday, August 14. For tickets, call 216-521-2540.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Home Again

(The national tour of "Jersey Boys" is at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday, July 17)

The brand of reader who would gander at the Eunuch undoubtedly realizes by now its intent is to supply a portal to our forebears' joys. It is a site to proclaim hosannas when local theater manages to encapsulate those flashes of insight or madcap Charlestons that took Grandma Sadie's mind off the butcher bill. For our core belief is that which was once valuable endures like pan-gold nuggets and the dross from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Me and Juliet" to the new Spider-Man extravaganza will sink into murky oblivion.

For example, at PlayhouseSquare, "Jersey Boys" - in a month-long run - has become the equivalent of a nostalgic trip to the seashore loaded with sex and sass. It's an evening intended to thrill anyone old enough to have worn or embraced anyone in a leisure suit. In reality, it is the best of a sub-specimen of musical theater known as the jukebox musical, where the canon of a one-time pop phenomenon, in this case Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is fired ad nauseum.

One would think it would be a Herculean task to imbue emotional heft to a show whose heart beats in the melodies of "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man." However, the creators, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, have been savvy enough to mythologize Valli's Brooklyn wailings much the same way Warner Bros. rhapsodized George M. Cohan to stand for an entire era. Just as the Cohan film utilized the skill of director Michael Curtiz and the undying charisma of its star, James Cagney, "Jersey Boys" uses the propulsive energy and falsetto Valli dynamism to create a neurotic epic of mobsters, small-time gamblers and drug-store Casanovas. It's what would have happened if Martin Scorsese had taken on "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

(Raine Thorne, left, as Karen O'Kane and Jacob Allen as Prince James in the Ohio Light Opera production of "Jubilee." Photo by Matt Dilyard.)

The Ohio Light Opera in Wooster caters to a far more silken, crinoline taste. It is one of the few places left in the United States to satiate those who still have loving and vague recollections of Jeanette McDonald singing Friml or Bobby Short crooning Porter. Commencing with Gilbert and Sullivan, evolving into European-strudel operetta and eventually segueing into Broadway, they have performed a hit-and-miss archeology through the decades. "Jubilee," written in 1935 by Cole Porter and Moss Hart, proves to be one of their most successful excavations. It chronicles that time when operetta was giving way to red-hot-and-blue Americana. The company tends to falter when presenting post-Rodgers and Hammerstein book musicals, but fortunately "Jubilee" still partly clings to operetta tradition. The book - with its royal blue-bloods on the lam from responsibility, sultry dancers and zany bad-boy playwright (Hart's first fictionalization of Noel Coward)- brings to mind the screwball comedies you can see any night on Turner Movie Classics.

(Jackie Kelk, left, and Montgomery Clift as the young princes in the original 1935 production of Cole Porter and Moss Hart's "Jubilee.")

However, the moment that makes the long drive to Wooster worth it is when the petulant princess and fun-loving playwright airily rise out of bed and perform one of Porter's lesser-known but delightful list songs, "A Picture of Me Without You." It is here that we not only experience the DNA of Porter's magical touch, we also see the raison d'etre of the pre-1950s musical comedy. Utilizing a 25-cent budget on a show that begs for a small fortune, thanks to the Ohio Light Opera's bonhomie, the production is given life by Julie Wright Costa's vintage eccentricity as the queen, Ted Christopher's endearing goofball of a king and choreographer Carol Hageman's adept unearthing of lost joie de vivre. Both Woody Allen and Thomas Wolfe claim it's fruitless to try and go back, but Wooster proves them partially wrong.

"Jersey Boys" runs through Sunday, July 17 at Playhouse Square. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

"Jubilee" runs in repertory with eight other works at the College of Wooster through Saturday, Aug. 13. For tickets, call 330-263-2345.