KYRA Olschewske as Penny Pingleton and Sarah Cabrera as Prudy Pingleton in “Hairspray” at Golden West College (GWC photo).
By Thom deMartino
Tracy Turnblad (Shakiba Shadman) is a young woman ahead of her time — or, perhaps, at just the right place and time.
In “Hairspray,” the musical now playing at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater, the audience is taken back in time to 1962 Baltimore, Maryland: with American culture still in the final throes of an idealized and homogenized 1950’s, yet before the revolutionary uprisings and social progression of the later 1960’s. Caught in the middle is Tracy, a robust and curvy young lady who doesn’t fit the traditionally accepted standards of beauty, but still dreams of being on Corny Collins’ (Brigham Hughes) television dance show — a hit with the teenage demographic, that still maintains the facade of “wholesome” 1950’s sensibilities.
It seems, however, that Tracy can’t catch a break: going to the show to audition and accompanied by her mousy best friend Penny Pingleton (Kyra Olschewske) she is berated and bullied by the program’s prima donna, Amber Von Tussle (Taylor Windle) after she bumps into Amber’s TV boyfriend Link Larkin (Alex Jean), who she herself has a schoolgirl crush on. In trouble at school (for her towering hairdo that the faculty find unacceptable), Tracy is confined to detention with a group of other “miscreant” students, nearly all of whom happen to be persons of color. She strikes up a friendship with the charismatic Seaweed Stubbs (Nathaniel Woodson), who teaches her some dance moves unlike anything on television — which she decides to try, to again find herself a place on The Corny Collins Show.
SHAKIBA SHADMAN as Tracy Turnblad in the Golden West College production of “Hairspray’ (GWC photo).
After successfully breaking onto the program, Tracy decides to make use of her new-found fame and status to bring about some changes: believing that the traditional segregation of African-American and Caucasian cultures is something that should be relegated to the past, she proposes doing away with the once-a-month “Negro Day” and replacing it with a fully integrated dance show, much to the chagrin of the show’s producer (and Amber’s mother) Velma Von Tussle (Dayna Sauble.)
Her own loving parents, the bombastic and “queen-sized” Edna (Raymond Zachary) and the jovial joke-and-gag salesman Wilbur (John K. Wilson) couldn’t be more proud of their daughter and her social consciousness — but the forces of the status quo are restlessly plotting, unwilling to let some voluptuous do-gooder thwart the way things are. And the struggle between the old and the new, the traditional and the progressive, is coming to a head…
Based off the 1980’s film “Hairspray,” the stage musical won 8 Tony Awards during its initial 2003 Broadway run: and now, nearly 15 years later, it is still just as popular with audiences and critics alike. With a great deal of social commentary and topics to unpack in the show — including race relations, bullying and body-shaming, as well as self-acceptance and positive self-image — the production addresses such hot-button topics with humor, poise… and, of course, some outstanding musical and dance numbers.
The number of stand-out performances in the show is staggering: Shadman is splendid as the plucky, progressive and compassionate Tracy; Sauble and Windle are darkly funny as the mother/daughter team trying to maintain their control and privilege; Woodson is enthralling as the smooth-talking and charming Seaweed; and Ruby Denmion is adorable as Seaweed’s sister, Little Inez.
Brenda Oen as Motormouth Maybelle (Seaweed and Inez’s mother, and monthly host on the Corny Collins Show) brings a remarkable stage presence, and her rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” is deeply touching and inspiring; Jean is delightful as the slick, winsome and good-hearted Link; Wilson is both goofy and warmly paternal as Tracy’s dad; and last, but certainly not least, Zachary is radiant in the role of the flamboyant and larger-than-life Edna.
“It feels really, really great to be able to put my own spin on it,” says Zachary, a 16-year stage veteran, about playing the iconic character. “This being my first Golden West College show, it’s a great experience.”
A musical flashback to a bygone era of cultural upheaval in American history, as well as a lesson in self-discovery and acceptance, “Hairspray” at the Mainstage Theater is a production that reaches across myriad generations to illustrate the humanity and universality within all of us.
“Hairspray,” now playing through May 7 at the Golden West College Mainstage Theater, 15751 Gothard St, Huntington Beach, CA 92647. Tickets available through the box office at714-895-8150, x1 or at www.gwctheater.com. Appropriate for all ages.