(This is a lengthier, more detailed review of the Manila staging of Hairspray than the Filipino version printed on Inquirer Libre yesterday.)
Moments before the show actually started, a voice reminds the audience that the story takes place in the ’60s, a time before cellphones and pagers. I told myself I was around that time and it was called the 80s. There was a quick flashback of the brick cellphone of Piltel in the early 90s before I shook myself from the reverie. “And now,” the booming voice said, “heeeere’s Hairspray!” I thought PT Barnum was going to appear on stage.
Instead, a spotlight turns on to reveal Tracy Turnblad (Madel Ching) waking up on bed center stage, singing the first lines of “Good Morning Baltimore.”
Welcome to the 60’s! It’s Hairspray – the hit Broadway musical based on John Waters’ campy 1988 movie about a hefty teenager vying for a dancing spot in The Corny Collins Show and, hopefully, some attention from the show’s famous heartthrob, Link Larkin. But what made the movie and the musical extra significant was the inclusion of racial segregation in its story. It wasn’t just about the dancing and Link Larkin, Tracy had to prove that her weight and her friends’ skin color were not issues in the show.
So successful was the musical that a movie version came out last year which earned a heavy $200 million worldwide.
For the purposes of this review I have to disclose that my only references are last year’s Nikki Blonsky-movie musical and the original movie with Ricki Lake as Tracy, available for viewing in the ever-dependable YouTube. Clips of the Broadway versions in YouTube provide some idea of how it was staged abroad, but that’s as far as I can fairly go. Lucky me.
The show is easy to like. It has catchy music and songs, sugarcoated like a krispy kreme classic. It’s as Disney-esque a non-Disney production can get, but thematically PG. Like the movie Enchanted. But let me get to the point.
The Design by Gino Gonzales is very colorful, and very easy on the eyes. Costumes generally adhere to what the Broadway versions look, except maybe Velma Von Tussle’s, which incorporate aspects of Michelle Pfeiffer’s wardrobe in the movie musical.
Performances are generally very good considering the big cast, with Dulce (as Motormouth Maybelle), Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (as Velma) and Michael de Mesa (as Edna Turnblad) getting exceptional marks, main star Madel Ching (Tracy Turnblad), Nyoy Volante (as Seaweed Stubbs), Christine Allado (Amber Von Tussle), Noel Rayos (Corny Collins) and the trio of Dynamites honorable mention.
It’s very interesting how most of the actors made their characters their own. Despite her character’s political slant (“we have to steer them in the white direction”) Luchengco-Yulo makes Velma’s bitchiness beautiful. She reminded me of Cindy McCain more than Michelle Pfeiffer. Now that’s Republican. Cringe.
We Flips all know Ms. Dulce’s lungpower is legendary, so the question was whether she could shake her bonbons onstage with the jumpy numbers. Not sure if this was her first stage musical, but she did okay. While she may not have the best moves, Dulce easily brings the house down (“Big, Blonde, and Beautiful” and parts of “The Big Dollhouse”). But she reserves all her vocal power in the Second Act with the showstopping “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a song about her family’s long struggle against inequality that takes stronger meaning today with the recent election of America’s first African American president. Somehow Dulce manages to express the song as if she were part of that civil rights movement, giving her all to deliver a soul-stirring performance worthy of ovation.
Traditionally, the role of Edna Turnblad is performed by a male actor, first performed by Divine in the 1988 movie and then on stage by Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein in 2002 and made famous by John Travolta in the movie musical last year. Award-winning screen and stage actor Michael de Mesa dresses for the role which he gives a very Pinoy “mahinhin” approach. The duet “You’re Timeless with Me” with Leo Rialp (as Wilbur Turnblad) is an example of stage confidence and presence honed by experience. It’s almost impossible to believe that a man dressed as a woman and a man with gray hair can share romantic chemistry – but there it is.
Which brings me to the main beef. I’m not sure if the problem is direction, the choreography, the sparse setting OR the (relative) Newbies or the off-timed lights (or all of the above). In general the direction is solid, the show is consistently fun and energetic, which is what it is. So maybe no problem with direction. However, there were many times in the show when I wondered whether the blocking was off, or that the steps looked repetitive or it’s just that the Newbies lacked the presence to project themselves beyond the P1,200 margin. Case in point is the opening act, “Good Morning Baltimore.” I felt a little underwhelmed because there was just a bed and no “Baltimore”; the spotlights seemed to have a life of their own and the stage felt underutilized even if there was business left, right and center. Or is it that the stage could have been a tad bigger? Same feeling happens in “The Nicest Kids in Town” and the ending.
In fairness to Madel Ching, she did a charming job as the perky Tracy considering it’s her first major production and it’s a lead character who’s onstage most of the time. The role can be challenging because song and dance numbers can be very fast, especially in the final “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” BUT, there were a few times when she sounded short of breath or half a note under even in slower numbers (“I Can Hear the Bells”, “Good Morning Baltimore-Reprise”).
Nyoy Volante showed he can dance as well as he can sing and he did Seaweed quite good. I can’t say much about Tim Espinosa as Link Larkin. He looked and sounded like he was doing a high school revue. And it can’t be puberty.
Lastly, (this is very minor beef) there’s a split-second Twilight Zone moment when the lights go on in the second act and we see most female characters behind bars in “The Big Dollhouse” since the rally scene at the end of Act One seemed to have ended abruptly without showing who actually got arrested. Or I blinked and missed it.
I heard from Mike (de Mesa) that they had a better show last Sunday than the one I saw last Saturday, so that’s a good thing. I hope they would have fixed the audio problems by this weekend.
Overall, there’s nothing not to like in a feel-good musical full of big colorful people, catchy tunes and wild hair. See it with the kids (but be prepared to explain the race issues and few sexual innuendos,) or see it before Obama takes the oath. The lights go off Hairspray in Broadway on January, so this may be the last chance to see it live. Hairspray in Manila is a real fun watch, a show that can have you shaking and shimmying happily all the way home. Kudos to Atlantis Productions, director Bobby Garcia and the rest of the cast, staff and crew.
Hairspray runs until December 7 at the Star Theater, CCP Complex, Manila.