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'Hairspray' at Berkeley Playhouse is full of style, learning opportunities

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MAY 01, 2015

The Julia Morgan Theater was bustling with excitement last Saturday for the sold-out opening night of Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “Hairspray.”

“Hairspray” starts as the story of one girl’s quest to local television fame, but progresses into an inspirational tale about battling racial inequality on the homefront in order to inspire national change — a sentiment that more than resonates with the Berkeley audience.

“Berkeley Playhouse’s ‘Hairspray’ is meant to inspire you to treat everyone in your life the way you want to be treated,” said director Daren A.C. Carollo in an email interview with The Daily Californian. “This piece proves that change can happen and does happen when the motivation behind the change is just and full of everyday common sense.”

The stage, illuminated in powder pink and bright, inviting spotlight (designed by Robert Broadfoot and Mark Thomas), is as indulgently sugary-sweet as the production itself. Its centerpiece — a 1960s-style television — serves as a tasteful backdrop for the freewheeling shenanigans of Tracy Turnblad (Monica Turner) and her musical gang of social justice sweethearts.

Because of the success of New Line Cinema’s blockbuster adaptation, most productions of “Hairspray” are easy to write off as trite recreations. But the standout performances by the cast of Berkeley Playhouse make this production a local must-see.

Monica Turner gives an electric performance as Tracy Turnblad, whose strikingly charismatic voice commands the show from start to finish. Turner tackles back-to-back intensive song-and-dance numbers with grace and persistent enthusiasm, capturing the crowd’s attention with Tracy’s signature dance moves and Turner’s own personal brand of sass.

While Link Larkin (Andrew Humann) is compared to “a young, budding Elvis,” Humann can be compared to a young, budding Aaron Tveit, whose clear and strong tenor captivated the crowd during the swoon-worthy ballad, “It Takes Two.”

Joel Roster is the company’s resident chameleon, taking on multiple roles — most prominently, the quirky character of Wilbur Turnblad. Roster is goofy and lovable as the uber-endearing father figure, warming the hearts of the predominantly young audience.

Tracy’s sidekick, Penny Pingleton (Hannah Foster), is charmingly geeky and an expert in physical comedy, the perfect foil to her suave and sultry love interest, Seaweed J. Stubbs (Branden Thomas). Thomas is a recognizable rising star at Berkeley Playhouse, with supporting roles in past productions of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Shrek the Musical.”

But Thomas rises to the foreground in “Hairspray,” grabbing the audience’s attention with an electrifying rendition of “Run and Tell That!” then securing their hearts with his soulful solo in “Without Love.” The only complaint to be made about this fabulous production is that it didn’t have nearly enough of Thomas’ earth-shaking vocals.

But putting Thomas’ powerhouse voice on the back burner may have been a strategy to not overwhelm the audience, because if combined with the roof-shattering riffs of Motormouth Maybelle (Berwick Haynes), the Julia Morgan Theatre would be left in shambles, destructed by the palpable amount of star power present that evening.

Haynes’ rendition of the show-stopping “I Know Where I’ve Been” was simply inspired, and completely worthy of its mid-show standing ovation. Accompanied by footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and various marches from the Civil Rights Movement, Haynes soars like a bottle rocket, performing the song with a sense of empowerment that is often lacking in other “Hairspray” productions. This performance single-handedly pulls the colorful and whacky world of teenage Baltimore back into the sordid actuality of racial inequality in the 1960s, a harsh reality that has become increasingly relevant due to recent protests and rioting in downtown Baltimore.

“We decided to play footage from the Civil Rights Movement during ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ long before the rioting and looting began in Baltimore, but I will say that this number has taken on yet another meaning,” Carollo said. “I look forward to the day that ‘Hairspray’ is a history lesson instead of a teachable moment.”

But for now, the cast at Berkeley Playhouse are fitting teachers, and the audience is ready to learn.

Rosemarie writes Monday’s column on popular culture. Contact her at [email protected].

MAY 01, 2015

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