Monday, July 4, 2011

It's Okay to be Fat and/or Black!

Last week Big Red and I went to see Zach Scott's production of HAIRSPRAY and, as is overwhelmingly the case at Zach, we had a super swell time. I cannot believe it's been 23 years since the original John Waters' movie, HAIRSPRAY, came out. (Dang. I could've sworn I saw that in Austin but I didn't even get to Austin til '91.) I loved loved loved loved the original-- I'm a big JW fan. But I never did get around to seeing the musical film version that came out in 2007, so I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to see the live show.

Well, well, well. HAIRSPRAY-- not surprisingly-- really holds up. I'm guessing most of y'all know at least a bit of the story by now, so it's not a huge spoiler to hit on a few plot points. Overweight Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad and her best friend Penny Pingleton are nerdy teenagers who long to be on the Corny Collins Show -- very similar to American Bandstand. That's where all the popular white kids appear. Tracy gets a chance to live the dream, only to discover evil racism dominating the set, which she decides to do something about.

Photo copyright Kirk R. Tuck 2011

Okay, the above doesn't even qualify as barebones, but don't worry about that. Point is, the show is witty and hilarious AND it manages to touch on stereotypes and isms that pervaded society in the '50s and continue to pervade today. Namely, the popular skinny white kids frown upon the black kids and the overweight kids (and anyone else perceived to be an outsider).

You don't have to have grown up in a racist town on the east coast to appreciate HAIRSPRAY, but if, like me, that was your fate, I think you'll get a bonus level of satisfaction. Listening to Tracy declare that "Every day should be Negro Day," I flashed back to a moment in my thirties when it dawned on me that I was free, free, free at last! See, I fled my racist hometown in my teens eventually landing in liberal Austin. And that epiphany brought me the realization that I could do ANYTHING I WANTED, including-- gasp! -- get it on with a black dude if I so chose (and was so chosen). Now if that sounds like a strange, immature, or maybe even racist-in-its-own-way kind of thought, bear with me. The notion itself might've been off, but what spurred it was realizing that the one thing my father most feared for his daughters was that we'd bring home a man of color. Or rather, that we'd stop coming home knowing that he'd kill us (so the threat went, I recall) if we did show up with a partner that varied from the white-male model he designated as appropriate. It's been so long since I spent much time thinking about the time and place I grew up in, and HAIRSPRAY reminded me of those very real racist conditions that shaped my childhood.

I want to wash this man's car. (Photo copyright Kirk R. Tuck 2011)

It also reminded me of the movie Citizen Ruth, which is a great comedy about abortion starring Laura Dern. Yes, I said a comedy about abortion. As someone who has both written and read my fair share of earnest, righteous, and outraged commentaries on topics like abortion and racism, I have to admit nothing tickles me more than when a writer can shine the light of absurdity on polarizing subject matter through the deft use of humor. HAIRSPRAY does this consistently and throughout. You're sitting there laughing but you know this is comedy born of some pretty unfunny shit.

Zach's creative director Dave Steakely has brought many pieces to the stage that examine racism and the black experience-- Keeping it Weird, Porgy and Bess, The Book of Grace, the list goes on. I imagined him taking extra delight in staging HAIRSPRAY which allows him to keep true to his clear devotion to making the world a better place and having pure fun via the glories of putting on a musical. It was so nice to see a cast featuring amazing talent, black and white, and to see an appreciative audience that also broke the mold of Austin's more-often-than-not sea of white crowd.

Now, about the cast, costumes, choreography and set-- call me a broken record but I'll say again what I so often say about Zach productions: Steakley and company: boy do they know what the hell they're doing. HAIRSPRAY hosts a substantial cast of mightily talented singers and dancers and there are so many standout performances among the actors that I might as well just cut and paste the program here to cover all my bases. Instead, I'll just assure you that you'll love all of the characters, and say that I was super delighted with Brian Coughlin as Tracy's mother, Edna (big shoes to fill-- the original movie featured drag diva Divine), Warren Freeman as Corny Collins and, be still my beating cougar heart, Joshua Denning as Seaweed J. Stubbs. I confess I actually lurked in the lobby post-show hoping to get a picture taken with Denning (not my typical style to stalk performers) who also was beyond astounding in Zach's RENT-- there is something so charismatic about this gorgeous, talented man that watching him perform makes me want to beg him to be my friend, or at least let me wash his car. Brooke Shapiro is an utterly adorable Tracy Turnblad and Christine Tucker as her sidekick Penny really tickled me. Jill Blackwood played a wonderfully wicked Velma Von Tussle (her run is finished now with Amy Downing taking over) who conspires with her equally wonderfully wicked daughter Amber-- Sara Burke-- as they futilely attempt to thwart Tracy's plot to make every day Negro Day. And I am not exaggerating when I say that Janis Stinson as Motormouth Maybelle brought down the house (well, brought the house to their feet) with her show-stopping rendition of I Know Where I've Been.

Photo copyright Kirk R. Tuck 2011

Heading over to Zach to see HAIRSPRAY, I admit I had some reluctance which had nothing to do with the show. I happened to have tickets for a Saturday night that marked then end of an absolutely ass-busting week of work. I was so exhausted I didn't know if I could stay awake long enough to sit through the whole production. Five minutes into it I was revived and excited enough to be glad I hadn't backed out of attending. The show whizzed by, not a draggy moment in it, and I exited absolutely delighted.

HAIRSPRAY plays at Zach Scott Theatre through August 28th. Click here for tickets. 

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