Dustin Freeland as Link Larkin, Erin E. Walker as Tracy Turnblad, Hannah Williams as Penny Pingleton and ensemble members in Hairspray. (photo by Tim Matheson)
When Theatre Under the Stars announced its lineup earlier this year, I was excited. I’d enjoyed the movie Hairspray, but not seen the stage version, and the last (and only) time I had seen Oliver! was at Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage when I was just shy of 9 years old. The brutality in that production, in particular Nancy’s death at the hands of Bill Sykes, stayed with me, and I was curious to see how TUTS would handle it.
But first, Hairspray. “Good Morning, Baltimore” is one of the greatest songs. So cheerful and optimistic, its driving beat setting the tone and pace of the entire musical. If only we could all carry such confidence and positive energy out into the world. But I digress. The broad expanse of the movie, in which heroine Tracy Turnblad, sings and dances her way to school through the city that she loves is, of course, not possible on stage, and the added sparseness of Brian Ball’s TUTS set – basically tiered, multi-colored stages with the odd extra prop or flourish – took a little adjustment in perspective. But once I scaled my expectations, I came to appreciate the room his choices made for the dancers. And what dancing! Julie Tomaino’s choreography was not only fabulous, but it was professionally executed by the mainly amateur cast.
Many of the cast members are at least triple threats. Starting with the lead, Erin E. Walker does a commendable job as the boundless Tracy, who, in 1962 Baltimore, sets out to be a dancer on The Corny Collins Show despite her relative largesse, and ends up not only winning a spot on the show but getting its Elvis-like heartthrob Link Larkin (perfectly played by Dustin Freeland) to fall in love with her. Oh, and she also inspires significant social change along the way, succeeding in racially integrating her favorite show. And, she convinces her mother – a pleasantly understated performance by Andy Toth – to come out of the house after a decades-long, self-imposed imprisonment out of shame over her weight.
On her mission(s), Tracy is supported by her best friend, Penny Pingleton, played by the obviously talented Hannah Williams, though the accent she chooses for the role makes her sound incredibly stupid. Thankfully, she sings more than talks. I also had a problem with a couple of the other accent choices – Ryan Purdy as Tracy’s dad sounds like a complete moron, rather than the tenderhearted, somewhat nerdy guy he is; and I’m still trying to figure out how a German prison matron made it to 1962 Baltimore.
For the most part, however, director Sarah Rodgers’ pacing and style are spot on; the costumes by Chris Sinosich are colorful and suit the characters and period; and music director Chris D. King, whose orchestra is fantastic, does an excellent job as Corny Collins. And three other standouts cannot go without mention: Cecilly Day as Motormouth Maybelle and, as Maybelle’s children, David Lindo-Reid as Seaweed J. Stubbs and Marisa Gold as Little Inez.
Oliver! is a much more uneven performance. TUTS valiantly tries to evoke 1843 England beyond the stage and, by the time the show starts, kids (and older folk) have had the chance to see a Punch and Judy show, compete in a 20-yard dash, show their strength in a bell-ringer contest and watch some comedic but able strongmen. While the “village fair” is a lot of fun and a great idea in concept, it sets the wrong tone for the musical – poor orphan Oliver, after all, left in a workhouse after his mother dies giving birth to him, does not get to have much fun.
The first few musical numbers also struggle to respect the darkness of the story. At the workhouse, the main “problem” is the portrayal of Mr. Bumble, who is played much too loudly and vulgarly by Damon Calderwood. At the undertaker’s (to whom Oliver is sold), dancing zombies and more overacting detract one’s attention from Oliver’s plight. A rushed rendition of the beautiful ballad “Where is Love” is a lost opportunity to latch on and care for Oliver, who is well-played by Carly Ronning.
It is only when Oliver manages to walk himself to London and find a home with Fagin’s gang of thieves that director Shel Piercy’s vision becomes more uniform and appropriate to the subject matter.
The young Nathan Piasecki as the Artful Dodger is one of the highlights of this production, as is his boss, Fagin, played by Jewish community member Stephen Aberle. The connection I felt some 36 years ago to Nancy just wasn’t there, however. Calderwood fares better as the evil Bill Sykes than Mr. Bumble, but again without any refinement, so it is hard to understand why Nancy, played ably by Elizabeth Marie West, would love him. She also was dressed quite fancily and seemed like a lady, so it was a wonder that she would be involved with him and Fagin in the first place. I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes during her rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me,” when I should have been sympathizing with her predicament – to be loyal to her (dangerous) man or risk her life to save Oliver. While the character’s death may have semi-traumatized me as a child, I can say this – it was both moving and memorable, neither of which applies as much to this version.
All that said, it is worth repeating that, from the moment Oliver meets the Artful Dodger just over halfway through Act 1, and is encouraged to consider himself part of Fagin’s “family,” TUTS’s Oliver! is a solid, enjoyable production. The ensemble – which includes community members Kat Palmer and Julian Lokash – are an incredibly talented and energetic group well worth seeing and hearing in action. They land the choreography of Keri Minty and Shelley Stewart Hunt and are in perfect tune with the orchestra, led by music director Kerry O’Donovan.
Theatre Under the Stars presents Hairspray and Oliver! on alternate evenings at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park until Aug. 22 (tuts.ca or 1-877-840-0457).