“Hairspray” is big fun

Shawna Quain, Chase Todd, Lillian Castillo, Antyon Le Monte and D. Scott Withers (center) of Phoenix Theatre's "Hairspray" Photo: Laura Durant

Big hair. Big props. Big set pieces. Big band. Big vocals. Big dance numbers. Big talent. Big message. Big fun.

You’ll find it all in Phoenix Theatre’s production of “Hairspray,” which runs through Dec 12.

I’m often drawn to particular shows for sentimental reasons. They remind me of an early childhood experience, relate somehow to a cause I support or feature folks we know as teachers or friends.

This time around it was three actors in particular.  

D. Scott Withers, who’s been with Childsplay in Tempe just a wee bit longer than I’ve been a mom, perfectly plays Edna Turnblad’s transformation from mousy to magnificent. (Though, sadly, his ironing skills appear to be lacking.)

Toby Yatso, a Phoenix Theatre artist-in-residence and member of the theater faculty at Arizona School for the Arts who plays Corny Collins, offers a performance that blends pristine attention to detail with a big, bold bundle of energy. (An observation shared with me by an astute ASA student who also attended on Saturday.) 

And Dion Johnson, who we first met a decade or so ago when Lizabeth was one of many daughters to his King in the Greasepaint Youtheatre production of “The King and I,” makes for a hilarious hat-donning and hip-thrusting Wilbur Turnblad. (With him, Edna doesn’t hear the bells — she feels them.)

I also give big marks to Antyon Le Monte, who makes his Phoenix Theatre debut as Seaweed, and Chase Todd, whose performance as Link Larkin makes you wonder whether the stork delivered him in a skinny tie and dancing shoes.

My daughter Lizabeth was thrilled to see Yolanda London make her Phoenix Theatre debut in “Hairspray” (Kamilah, Hooker, Female Ensemble). She’s another longtime favorite from Childsplay, where Lizabeth has enjoyed London’s big talent and big heart as an instructor in their Childsplay Academy.

She’s one of many women whose performances made us smile ourselves silly and tap our toes like there’s no tomorrow.

Jacqueline Rushing (Little Inez) was last seen in Mesa Encore Theatre’s “Once on This Island” and I became a fan the second I read these words in her “Hairspray” bio — “In her spare time she enjoys writing stories and inhaling books.”

Andi Watson, who plays the delightfully devious Velma Von Tussle, was last seen as Poppy in Phoenix Theatre’s “Noises Off.” Her off-stage adventures include “photography and maternity casting.” She’s also co-founder of Living Arts Studio.

Daughter Amber Von Tussle is capably played by Jacqueline Dunford, a music major at Scottsdale Community College making her professional theater debut.

Shawna Weitekamp (Penny Pingleton) is a Phoenix Theatre repeat offender (it’s a good thing) whose bio advocates the benefits of eating healthy chocolate. Perhaps she can get the folks in San Francisco to replace all those banned Happy Meal toys with candy bars.

Lillian Castillo plays trailblazing teen Tracy Turnblad in Phoenix Theatre's "Hairspray" Photo: Laura Durant

Audience favorites included Lillian Castillo as the spunky and single-minded Tracy Turnblad, whose insistence on racial integration on the dance floor shows that one person (often a teen) truly can change the world.

Also De Angelus Grisby (Motormouth Maybelle), whose bio includes this note to sons Roman and Elijah — “Thank you for allowing your mother to dream out loud on the stage.” Her vocal performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been” left the woman sitting next to me dabbing tears away with a tissue while other audience members stood to applaud.

They didn’t wait until the show was over, which tells you just how moved they were by her soul — and the collective strength of the ensemble singing behind her. It was the finest vocal performance I’ve ever experienced in Valley theater.

The creative team is no less impressive. It includes director Michael Barnard, choreographer Robert Kolby Harper, and resident music director Alan Ruch. Michael J. Eddy, also well loved in youth theater circles, is production manager and lighting designer.

Phoenix native Katie McNamara, a graduate of Southern Utah University and one-time prop artisan with the Utah Shakespearean Festival (now the Utah Shakespeare Festival), does property design with pizzazz. The equally impressive scenic design is by Robert Andrew Kovach.

Wig designer Gerard Kelly did “Hair” on Broadway, but my one criticism of the show is that not all the coiffed cast members turned it loose during their final dance numbers — looking like they feared their hair might end up flying across the room. So ladies, let your hair down.

A few things of note in this particular musical…

References to bygone days and ways are plentiful. The more you know about Geritol, Perry Como, Ripple, Cooties, Mydol and Green Stamps — the more lines you’ll meet with laughter.

The sexual inuendo is relatively tame but there’s enough of it to satisfy those who go for such things. And “Hairspray” is a dream for one-liner lovers with quips like “I lost my man and my hair deflated in one day.”

Lillian Castillo and D. Scott Withers of Phoenix Theatre's "Hairspray" Photo: Laura Durant

Whether you go just for the fun of it or for the fabulous social justice vibe of this “Welcome to the ’60s” musical, you’ll find plenty of what you’re looking for.

I think it’s an especially powerful show for teens in an age of face-to-face and online bullying.

The message is simple, but timeless.

Big is beautiful. Black is beautiful. Being yourself is beautiful.

Above all, follow your dreams. Remain loyal. And keep moving forward.

– Lynn

Note: The musical “Hairspray” features book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman. Click here for Phoenix Theatre ticket information. Read yesterday’s post titled “Saturdays & serendipity” to learn more about Lynn’s “Stage Mom” adventures before and after the show.

Coming up: Art in the animal world, Pearls from “Playing for Change,” Art adventures: City of Surprise, Museum exhibit that asks “Are we that different?”

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