By Dee Jae Cox
This weekend, with hair teased to gravity-defying heights and sold-out houses, Palm Canyon Theatre opened the musical “Hairspray,” with book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Inspired by John Waters 1988 film of the same name, “Hairspray” first opened on Broadway in 2002 and no surprise to anyone, went on to win eight Tony Awards. The music, the dancing, the singing will take you back to a time when life seemed simpler until you realize that in the years leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, America was redefining itself through the rebellion and rejection of racial segregation.
The year is 1962, Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad, portrayed by the very talented Jasmine Shaffer, is struggling with teen anxiety, being overweight and fulfilling her biggest dream, to be a dancer on the local teenage dance show, The Corny Collins Show. Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton, talented stand out Elizabeth Schmelling, set out to achieve this goal, despite the odds. Though, once accomplished things are not as simple as they seem. The show is facing a historic change, integrate or go off the air. Through humor, tears, inspiring music and dance, Tracy pushes this group, kicking and screaming, into the future.
Keisha D, as Motormouth Maybelle, a smart, sassy, determined owner of a downtown record shop and host of “Negro Day,” on the Corney Collins Show, teams up with Tracy to move things along. Keisha D’s powerhouse voice and performance of “I know where I’ve Been,” was absolutely breathtaking. I dare anyone not to tear up during that number.
“Hairspray,” is a phenomenal show and this cast is spilling over with talent. Robbie Wayne, Artistic Director of the Desert Rose Playhouse, lent his exceptionally creative directorial and choreography skills to this production. Through the initial separation of black and white cast members and their slow integration, Wayne’s staging of this show really emphasized the impact that the segregation of the races was having on the characters as well as their culture. I especially loved seeing Tracy’s hair style change at the end from the mile high bee hive to the long straight strands that symbolized the changing of the times.
There are so many takeaways from this show that unfortunately still hold meaning in today’s ongoing struggles. The high ideas, the triumph, and joy, as well as the struggles of “Hairspray” are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s.
In his civil rights address of June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced that he soon would ask Congress to enact landmark civil rights legislation.
Kennedy’s words reflected the ideas and thoughts of a world leader who was struggling to make a nation whole in the midst of great civil unrest and change.
“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he told the nation. “It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”
J.W. Layne’s scenic and lighting design and Derik Shopinski’s costumes all make the production quality of this show top tier. Jaci Davis does an outstanding job with musical direction, though there were moments at the beginning of the show when the actor’s singing was overpowered by the music.
It’s near impossible not to want to jump to your feet and dance during this musical. It’s fun, poignant and oh so relevant. Palm Canyon Theatre knows how to put on a quality show. Bravo for their production of another hit. “Hairspray,” is running through December 16th.
The Palm Canyon Theatre is located at 538 North Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. For Reservations: Box Office: (760) 323-5123 www.palmcanyontheatre.org
Dee Jae Cox is a playwright, director and producer. She is the Cofounder and Artistic Director of The Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project.