And The Beat Goes On: "Hairspray" at Syracuse Stage

IMG_1044 "Hairspray"

Who: Syracuse Stage

Where: 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13210

When: Through Jan. 4

Tickets: $35-$40

Review by Seamus Kirst

With 40 wigs, 135 costumes, 32 wireless mics, 52 speakers, 350 lighting fixtures and seven miles worth of power and data cables, Syracuse Stage and Syracuse University Drama’s coproduction of Hairspray was quite the technical undertaking.

But, without a doubt, these technicalities were completely worth it. The show was enthralling from open until close. Before I begin my rave, I will voice my one criticism. Some of the microphones, including that of Mary DiGangi – who plays the lead, Tracy – were at times too quiet and their voices felt slightly drowned out by the music during certain songs. This made their sung lines, at times, hard to understand.

Other than this minor microphone issue, I was so impressed by the entire production. The cast, which is comprised of both SU drama students and members of the Actor’s Equity, seamlessly blended together.

Hairspray tells the story of a group of teens, led by the ever-spunky Tracy Turnblad, in 1960's Baltimore who encounter prejudice and racism while dancing on a local TV show.

 Kyle Anderson (center, as Corny Collins) and the Council Kids. Photographer Michael Davis.

In terms of character execution, DiGangi, who played full-figured teen and dance sensation Tracy, and Lila Coogan, who played her quirky sidekick, Penny, sparkled in the spotlight. DiGangi’s commitment to her role, which she maintained while energetically bouncing and jiving around the stage for almost the entirety of the two and a half hour production, was commendable. Coogan delivered her lines impeccably with perfectly awkward body contortions and facial expressions. Coogan’s high-pitched squeak of a voice set up gasp-worthy moments of contrast with that of her singing, where her full-bodied voice blew audience members away.

David Lowenstein, who played Tracy’s even more full-figured mother, Edna, and Marie Kemp, who played the villainous Velma Von Tussle, dominated the stage in their supporting roles. Lowenstein’s literally larger than life character had the audience roaring with laughter. Kemp’s delivery of her songs, and physical interaction with male audience members, was equally hilarious.

 Aurelia Williams (Motormouth), Austin Holmes (Seaweed), Tay Cooley (Cindy), and Ethan Butler (Stooie) in HAIRSPRAY. Photographer: Michael Davis

In terms of vocal performance, all of the songs were wonderful, but the most memorable voice belonged to Aurelia Williams, who played Motormouth Maybelle.  Hairspray is set during the 60’s, and is thematically focused on integration and resistance during the Civil Rights Movement. In the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions over the past few weeks, her powerful delivery of the song, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” seemed to take on a whole new meaning and literally left members of the audience in tears. Her voice was soulful, and her presence was so perfectly demanding. I wish that the play had been written with more songs for Williams to perform because her voice was simply that good.

The choreography was meticulous, and all of the performers from the leads to the ensemble members did an incredible job of executing their intricate routines. With an enviable ease, SU junior, Austin Holmes, who plays Seaweed, rose above as the most dominant dancer.

The sets and costumes were fabulous, full of vibrant colors, absurd wigs and bright lights. The play tackles complex issues, like body image, bullying and racism, while maintaining a party-like atmosphere where, at times, the audience is even encouraged

David Lowenstein (Edna) and Mark David Kaplan (Wilbur) in HAIRSPRAY. Photographer: Michael Davis.

to stand up and dance.

If you are suffering from winter gloom, Hairspray, which runs through Jan. 4, is the perfect remedy.