The high-energy dance numbers alone are worth the ticket.
But the Omaha Community Playhouse’s production of “Hairspray,” which opened Friday, also boasts a long list of top-notch character actors, color-drenched sets and costumes that are fun to ogle, some exceptional singing and a racial-equality plot worth cheering.
The result at a Thursday preview was an enthusiastic standing ovation that began before the first cast member took a bow and lasted through a post-curtain-call reprise of the show’s signature tune, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
This kind of audience response is particularly worth noting on a night when glitches big and small plagued director Susan Baer Collins’ cast. Worst of all, the leading lady, suffering from respiratory illness, was not able to deliver the strong vocals she’s capable of. Problems with high register and pitch aren’t something you’d normally hear from Eastin Yates, who plays Tracy Turnblad.
Yates gave an otherwise winning performance as plump idealist Tracy, the 1960s Baltimore teen who dreams of dancing on the Corny Collins TV show (Bob Kropp is just right as Corny) and swoons over its handsome star dancer, Link Larkin (David Zenchuk Jr.).
Her mother, compulsive eater Edna (Jim McKain), worries Tracy will only be made fun of because of her weight, but her dad, Wilbur (Jerry Van Horn), encourages Tracy to “think big.”
That’s a big threat to TV producer Velma Von Tussle (Stacy Maddux), who abhors Tracy’s push to integrate the dance show, and to Velma’s snooty daughter, Amber (Courtney Stein), who vies with Tracy for the title of dance queen — and who happens to be Link’s girl.
A dance show within a dance show means lots of fancy stepping, and choreographer Kathy Wheeldon has polished one big chorus number after another to great effect. “The Nicest Kids in Town,” “Run and Tell That” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” top the list of eye-poppers.
Among standout supporting players, Bailey Carlson, as Tracy’s best pal Penny, and Luther R. Simon, as dirty dancer Seaweed, add sex appeal and real spark as they fall for each other. Like them, Zenchuk is also a triple threat as smooth-talker Link.
McKain and Van Horn turn the two-step “Timeless to Me” into comedic gold, and it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on Edna and Wilbur.
Kathy Tyree nearly stopped the show twice as Seaweed’s mom, Motormouth Maybelle, who owns a record shop in a black neighborhood. Tyree is vocal dynamite singing “Big, Blonde & Beautiful” and the moving blues anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been.” She even got a rare midsong round of applause.
Tyree was a pro also in dealing with an incredible faux pas: Having forgotten to put on a gold gown beneath a policeman uniform, she whipped off her shirt during the finale to reveal a foundation garment! She gamely played through the scene without pause.
The crowd got a big kick out of Judy Radcliff and Ablan Roblin in a succession of comedic bit parts: Penny’s mom, jail matron, principal, advertising sponsor. Seanique Fleming, Michaela Russell and Brandi Smith, playing a Supremes-like trio, were also a hit.
Costumes by Georgiann Regan, wigs by Kaylan Paisley, scenic and lighting design by Jim Othuse and a top-notch pit of musicians led by Jim Boggess all deserve high praise.
Even with preview-night glitches, “Hairspray” easily ranked among the season’s top musicals. A cast this strong is almost goof-proof, proving true the show’s signature tune: You really can’t stop the beat.
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