Skylight Music Theatre Presents HAIRSPRAY Review – Occasion for a Tuneful, Exuberant Road Trip to Milwaukee

With at least 50 professional theater productions to choose from each month in Chicago, one might wonder why even the most ardent theatergoing Chicagoan would need to travel 90 miles up the road to Milwaukee to see a revival of a familiar musical like Hairspray.  One reason might be just to include some playgoing in a weekend change-of-scenery getaway, another might be to keep tabs on a favorite artist like Chicago’s director Lili-Anne Brown or performer Bethany Thomas or check out Milwaukee’s talent pool  And it might be, as in this writer’s opinion, to check out the next big Chicago breakout musical theater performer. In this case, that would be Maisie Rose, a Northwestern University grad who’s shined in supporting roles for Refuge Theatre Project in Things to Ruin and Lysistrata Jones, taking the leading role of Tracy Turnblad.

A breakout role for Chicago’s Maisie Rose and a showcase for Bethany Thomas

Rose brings her comedic instincts and powerful vocals to the role of the plus-size underdog who wins both a spot on a Baltimore TV dance show and the affections of Link Larkin, the most handsome boy on the show. Rose’s Tracy is just a little more confident and assertive than the usual interpretation, a choice that supports the belief that this aspiring dancer with the bouffant hair has the chutzpah to challenge the status quo of segregation on “The  Corny Collins Show.”

Skylight Music Theatre HAIRSPRAY
(l. to r.) Colin Schreier (Link Larkin) and Maisie Rose (Tracy Turnblad)
Skylight Music Theatre HAIRSPRAY
Doug Clemons (Corny Collins, front, left) with the Nicest Kids in Town

No less satisfying than Ms. Rose to Chicago theater lovers who catch this HAIRSPRAY will be Bethany Thomas, who for over a decade has blown away audiences with her vocals and recently proven her chops as a dramatic actress as well. Thomas here has two big numbers to showcase her big voice: the comic “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and the civil rights anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Director Brown stages the latter number with gravity, acknowledging the long struggle for freedom by African-Americans. As the cast joins Thomas near the close of the number, it’s a reminder of the very real stakes behind this satire of 1960’s social classes and racial prejudices. It’s a sharp departure in tone from the sometimes-over-the-top goofiness of this comedy, but in this writer’s view, not an inappropriate one.

This writer, as other Chicago theatergoers, will find many other cast members similarly standout, starting with Colin Schreier, a singing, dancing and comedic triple-threat as the sweet heartthrob Link Larkin; and Gilbert Domally as Seaweed J. Stubbs.  Domally is a vocal knockout with his “Run and Tell That.” Tommy Novak, seen in Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago’s Billy Elliot last year is this production’s Edna Turnblad, in a take owing more to the original Edna as played by Divine in the original nonmusical film by John Waters on which this musical is based than to Harvey Fierstein’s interpretation on Broadway. Chicagoan Ann Delaney is an endearingly goofy Penny Pingleton.

Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre uses impressive local performers

In this writer’s view, Milwaukee’s contributions to this ever upbeat and uplifting musical comedy are no less notable. Skylight regular Samantha Sostarich nails both the vocals and the social satire of her character Velma Von Tussle, the scheming producer of the Corny Collins Show that is promoting her daughter Amber (Amber Smith) to with the “Miss Hairspray” crown. Doug Clemons is a charming, smooth-voiced Corny; and Milwaukee theater veteran David Flores is a winner as Edna’s diminutive husband Wilbur. His natural charm supplements the advantage of height (he appears about one-half the height of his stage wife) in the service of creating such a humorous yet apparently loving couple.

Even more stunning and a distinction over other professional productions of Hairspray one may have seen, is the use of area performers of high school age and younger, including Terynn Erby-Walker, who’s an adorable Little Inez. The teens comprise the entire ensemble and look like the high school students they’re playing, but they sing and dance like complete pros, executing the exuberant dances of choreographer Ryan Cappleman and following the able music direction of Cindy Blanc.

Zack Bernstein’s sound design uses the superior acoustics of the venue to deliver crystal clarity to the lyrics by songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The stage seems to be unable to accommodate as much scenery as we might see elsewhere, but Carey Wong has designed a colorful series of flats and roll-on pieces that serve the colorful palette this piece calls for, and is matched by the period costumes by Michael Bottari and  Ronald Case.

Skylight Music Theatre HAIRSPRAY
Gilbert Domally (Seaweed J. Stubbs)
Skylight Music Theatre HAIRSPRAY
Colin Schreier (Link Larkin)
Skylight Music Theatre HAIRSPRAY
(l. to r.) Samantha Sostarich (Velma Von Tussle) and Amber Smith (Amber Von Tussle)

Skylight’s Cabot Theatre is an attraction on its own, in Milwaukee’s vibrant Third Ward district

First-timers to Skylight – a 59-year-old Equity-affiliated company – will likely be enchanted by its performance venue –  the 25-year-old Cabot Theatre. Designed as a jewel box Italianate opera house, it adds a sense of elegance and occasion to attending a performance that is unusual for an intimate space (358 seats).  The venue, part of the Broadway Theater Center that also includes a black box theater and is additionally home to the Equity-affiliated Milwaukee Chamber Theater – was one of the pioneer projects in the redevelopment of Milwaukee’s “Third Ward” district from a run-down row of former produce distributors to a major tourist attraction of shops, galleries, restaurants and a boutique hotel (The Kimpton Journeyman, reviewed elsewhere in Picture This Post).
Chicago theatergoers who possess any FOMO (fear of missing out) of theater in this region, as the Chicago and Milwaukee theater communities continues to draw from each other’s talent pools, will want to keep an eye on Skylight and other Milwaukee professional companies.

Skylight Music Theatre HAIRSPRAY
Doug Clemons (Corny Collins, center) with the Nicest Kids in Town
Skylight Music Theatre HAIRSPRAY

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

DISCLOSURE :  John Olson is a press representative for several Chicago theatre companies and has previously represented shows in which Lili—Anne Brown, Maisie Rose and Colin Schreier have been involved.

CAST:

Maisie Rose (Tracy Turnblad), Doug Clemons (Corny Collins), Tommy Novak (Edna Turnblad), Ann Delaney (Penny Pingleton), Samantha Sostarich (Velma Von Tussle), Amber Smith (Amber Von Tussle), Colin Schreier (Link Larkin), Gilbert Domally (Seaweed J. Stubbs), Bethany Thomas (Motormouth Maybelle), David Flores (Wilbur Turnblad), Terynn Erby-Walker (ittle Inez), Rick Pendzich (Male Authority Figure), Rhonda Rae Busch (Female Authority Figure). Youth ensemble:  Joshua Brown, Sam Gist, Kamani Graham, Meguire Hennes, Nathan Kabara, Charles Kelley, Jake Koch, Gabby Koziol, Jasmine Love, Jarred Manista, Ashley Nord, Maya O’DayBiddle, Georgina Pink, Mackenzie Ross, Jeffrey-Thomas (J.T.) Snow, Alexandria Woods.

CREATIVE:

Lili-Ann Brown (Director), Cindy Blanc (Music Director), Ryan Cappleman (Choreographer), Carey Wong  (Scenic Designer), David Gipson (Lighting Designer), Michael Bottari and Ronald Case (Costume Designers),  Zack Berinstein (Sound Designer),  Gerard Kelly (Wig Designer), Daniel J. Hanson (Production Stage Manager).

When:

Now through December 30, 2018
Schedule through December 22:
Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm
Additional matinee Wednesday, December 5 at 2 pm
Holiday Week Schedule December 23- 30
Sunday, December 23 at 1 and 6:30 pm
Wednesday, December 26 at 1 and 6:30 pm
Thursday, December 27 at 6:30 pm
Friday, December 28 at 7:30 pm
Saturday, December 29 at 4 pm
Sunday, December 30 at 2 pm

Where:

Broadway Theater Center, Cabot Theatre
158 N. Broadway
Milwaukee, WI 53202

Tickets:

$30+

Purchase at Broadway Theatre Center Box Office, 158 N. Broadway, by calling (414) 291-7800, or visiting The Skylight Music Theatre website

Photos Ross Zentner

Historic Third Ward website

Kimpton Journeyman Hotel website

About the Author:

John Olson is an arts carnivore who is particularly a love of music, theatre and film. He studied piano, trombone and string bass into his college years, performing in bands and orchestras in high school and college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While working as an advertising agency account manager, he began a second career as an arts journalist and is now principal of John Olson Communications, a marketing and public relations business serving arts and entertainment clients.

John Olson Photo by G. Thomas Ward
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