A high-octane 'Hairspray'

Stanford students stage winning rendition of Civil Rights Era musical

In musical theater parlance, a "triple threat" is a performer who can do it all: sing, dance and act. True triple threats are hard to come by. But Ram's Head Theatrical Society, Stanford's oldest student-run theater group, has hit the triple-threat jackpot in casting its current production of "Hairspray," the stage musical based on John Waters's film of the same name.

It's a good thing, too. With a plot involving the racial integration of a teen dance-party TV show in 1962 Baltimore, the majority of "Hairspray"'s primary characters are singers and dancers. Virtually every song in the show's tune-packed two and a half hours is a dance number, most of them in high-octane sock hop style. Of the 19 Ram's Head performers with named speaking roles, nearly every one has an opportunity to show off his or her singing, dancing and acting chops ... and no one disappoints.

Front and center is Jessia Hoffman as Tracy Turnblad, an irrepressible plus-sized teen whose plus-sized hairdo lands her in detention day after day. When Tracy's dream of being a studio dancer on the local "Corny Collins Show" becomes a reality, she is not content merely to have bypassed the size prejudice of the show's producer. Tracy sets out to end teen TV apartheid, campaigning to integrate the African-American dancers from the show's monthly "Negro Day" with the usual cast of white kids.

Given the show's sunny musical comedy vibe, the outcome of Tracy's campaign is never in doubt. With host Corny Collins (a slick portrayal by Rob Biedry) on her side from the start, the only roadblock is producer and former beauty queen Velma Von Tussle (Lucie Fleming in a performance worthy of a Disney villainess).

Also in Tracy's corner are her friend Penny (Hannah Hsieh), her dream-come-true beau Link Larkin (Matt Herrero), Negro Day dancer Seaweed Stubbs (Robert Poole, whose body moves like kelp in a riptide), his sister Little Inez (Kadesia Woods) and Tracy's parents: Wilbur, owner of a local joke and magic shop (Brady Richter, whose cheesy sight gags never fail to produce an audience guffaw), and Edna (Nick Biddle, who infuses the double entendre-laden drag role with equal measures of sardonic humor and maternal warmth).

While all of these actors sell their featured song and dance moments for all they're worth, the precision of the company numbers is perhaps even more impressive. Vocal director Alexander Ronneburg and choreographers Emily Giglio, Tayna Gonzales, Amber Quiñones and Dafna Szafer deserve tremendous credit for drilling the big production numbers until every note and every hip swivel is executed with a near perfect synchronization that is rare for non-professional theater. (The show's finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat," in which 40 actors pack the stage, all sweeping their arms skyward simultaneously, is a joy to behold.)

Special mention is owed to one of the show's few non-dancing numbers. "I Know Where I've Been" is an anthem of black struggle and survival, belted out by Ladidi Garba as record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle. Garba's stand-and-deliver vocal, soaring over the show's most stirring choral harmonies, makes this song a show stopper.

It's a fitting high point for a production that seeks to emphasize the timeliness of "Hairspray's" racial themes. Director Ken Savage aims to highlight not only the important civil rights victories of the 1960s but also the racial disparities that still exist in American society 50 years later. While never heavy-handed, this directorial attention to the show's contemporary resonance (for instance, including a "Black Lives Matter" sign among the pro-integration pickets in the act one finale) adds weight to what could otherwise be a fluffy, inconsequential Broadway romp.

If the production has notable weaknesses, they are primarily technical issues: an awkward set change, a non-period prop, sound mixing that doesn't quite lift the mic'd voices over the boisterous pit band. As a result of the latter, some lyrics are lost along the way; thankfully this is not a show in which the lyrics are crucial to following the plot.

Ram's Head's "Hairspray" also has notable technical strengths. Hair and wig design are spot on. Costumes are colorful, period appropriate and richly communicative about the characters who wear them.

Finally, it would be impossible to write about this production without mentioning the set. All of the show's action takes place in front of a 20 by 40-foot wall of color-changing LEDs. With 20,000 LED "bulbs" arrayed like a giant programmable Lite-Brite, the LED wall is controlled by custom-designed software that allows the light-up "set" to change instantly from the tacky blue and gold wallpaper pattern of the Turnblads' living room to the pink and powder blue checkerboard set of "The Corny Collins Show."

The LED wall can also flash and pulse in time with the music, bringing the '60s-styled musical numbers to life in a way that feels period appropriate despite the 21st century technology. It can mimic a starry sky (as in Edna and Wilbur's funny and touching soft shoe, "You're Timeless to Me") or a barrage of fireworks (in the teens' double duet, "Without Love").

It's an impressive bit of theater tech that must be seen to be believed. A search on YouTube will turn up a few short clips of the LED wall in action. But for the full effect, buy a ticket and enjoy an evening of colorful, upbeat, infectiously energetic musical theater.

What: "Hairspray," presented by Ram's Head Theatrical Society

Where: Memorial Auditorium, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford

When: Friday, April 16-Sunday, April 18, 8 p.m.

Cost: $10-$20

Info: Go to musical.stanford.edu.


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