Paper Mill Playhouse

Millburn, NJ - September 2010

Reviewed by John Kenrick

The original Broadway production of Hairspray closed less than two years ago, but oh my, has life been flat without it!

Anyone concerned that our nation needs new sources of energy should find a way to tap into the high-energy, laugh-packed revival of Hairspray now delighting audiences art New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse. Audiences have long-since embraced the superb score by Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman, and the solidly crafted libretto by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. But the real magic of this beloved, tuneful and campy musical comedy, based on an even campier 1988 comic film by John Waters, is that amid all the fun, it delivers a powerful call for tolerance -- and that message still packs wallop thanks to Paper Mill's sensational cast.

Christine Danelson is a knockout as Tracy Turnblad, the spunky overweight teen who dreams of discovering local TV fame, true love, and a pathway to racial tolerance in 1962 Baltimore. Appearing in almost every scene, Tracy has the formidable challenge of keeping the audience laughing and caring, even when the plot goes to cartoonish extremes -- after all, bigotry is all too easily overwhelmed here. Danelson's extraordinary talent, and her total belief in her character, give this show the spiritual spine it needs, and keep this musical comedy soufflé (or should I say bouffant?) puffed high and sparkling.

As Link, the handsome teen who eventually realizes he loves Tracy and will risk his dreams of musical stardom for her, Constantine Rousouli has all the required looks, voice and heart, Alex Ellis is a hoot as Penny Pingleton, Tracy's faithful sidekick, and Caliaf St. Aubyn does an excellent job as Seaweed, the black teen who wins Penny's repressed heart. Kathleen Elizabeth Montalone wins laughs as the pretty but bigoted blonde bully Amber Von Tussle, and Arielle Campbell is a delight as Little Inez. All of these young performers, and the amazing chorus, keep this production dancing like blazes from the bouncy opening of "Good Morning, Baltimore"" to the foot-tapping finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat."

There are five key adult roles in Hairspray, and happily this production has a team gifted veterans on hand. Kasey Marino is perfect as TV dance show  host Corny Collins, and Donna English is delightful as the hilariously evil beauty Velma Von Tussle. NaTasha Yvette Williams is a vocal powerhouse as Motormouth Maybelle -- I've never heard anyone equal her singing in this role, so it is no surprise that she turns "I Know Where I've Been" into a genuine showstopper.

But the crown jewels of this production are two of the greatest talents walking any musical stage today. Broadway uber-hunk Christopher Sieber (Spamalot, Shrek) takes on the iconic role of overweight, insecure mamma Edna Turblad with brilliant comic abandon, scoring a total triumph. Any actor can win laughs by slipping into a dress, but it takes a star like Sieber to make an audience fall in love with the loving, big-hearted character underneath all the padding. His voice slides easily from feminine softness to macho basso profundo, winning belly laughs all the way.

Sieber has the perfect stage partner in Lee Roy Reams, who plays husband Wilber Turblad with winning warmth. When these two take the stage in the vaudeville-style duet "You're Timeless to Me," they remind you that musical comedy, in the hands of real masters, can make an entire audience forget its woes and, for a few precious minutes, share in a genuine sense of euphoria. Oh, how fans of musical theatre hunger for such moments -- and thanks to Sieber and Reams, the magic Broadway so often lacks today is alive and shining at Paper Mill.

Michelle Lynch has done an excellent job re-creating Jerry Mitchell's electrifying choreography, and Matt Lenz has done an equally fine job delivering all of Jack O'Brien's acclaimed original stage direction. Joseph Elefante conducted with style and genuine devotion to the score, and the Paper Mill production team made sure that all physical elements were handsomely presented.

If anyone is still wondering if Paper Mill Playhouse has gotten past its recent rough times, all they need to do is see this sensational production of Hairspray. Paper Mill has done more than just turn a corner -- it is back with a vengeance, and with Hairspray, it is giving audiences as much, if not more, reasons to cheer than most of the shows currently running on the other side of the Hudson.

This production ran at Paper Mill Playhouse through October 17, 2010.

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