By Elizabeth Katz
April 4, 2016
A student-run theatre club decides to put on a production of Hairspray at NYU. You’re probably thinking it’ll be a heartfelt, but shoddy attempt – maybe in a dorm dance room with no lighting, sound, or set. The cast will sing along to prerecorded karaoke tracks, and the costumes will be scraped together from thrift store shopping sprees. But no, the performance I saw on Friday, April 1st was exactly the opposite, and that’s because it was crafted by Tisch New Theatre.
The organization, which involves students from all schools within NYU, is no joke. Directed and choreographed with intention and precision by Marc Anthony Ferre, and remarkably produced by Jason Arnold, Hairspray is currently playing in the Skirball Center, to a house of 850. The sheer size of the proscenium stage should tell you something about the group’s prominence on campus. And, certainly, part of TNT’s reputation comes from the fact that they go full out for their shows. The well-designed set of Hairspray fills the stage with a 60s mod vibe, while colorful lights hit the background and illuminate the figures onstage. The actors are dressed in gorgeous dresses and vibrant suits, and the wigs are beautifully styled and maintained. The production elements for such a big musical should be highly valued, and TNT fully invests in constructing the perfect atmosphere, so that the magic of musical theatre can happen onstage. The creative team for this show may be mostly students, but they are definitely not amateurs.
Nor are the performances. The light-hearted, but high-energy story of a dance-loving teenage girl, following her dreams and defying expectations, in 1960’s Baltimore, is in good hands with this cast. Sophomore Casey Whyland leads the show with her genuine and hilarious portrayal of Tracy Turnblad. Her distinctly bell-like voice rings with ease, and she captures every ounce of the character’s charm; we love Whyland’s kind-hearted and audacious Tracy, and we cheer her on through the end. As we watch the powerhouse knock down every obstacle and prejudice in her way, we understand why Tracy’s optimistic spirit is so infectious for everyone around her. But at the “Corny Collins Show,” where Tracy gains a spot as a dancer, she faces serious judgment about her appearance, and her support of racial integration. The ringleader of the bullying is the obnoxious star of the show, Amber VonTussle, played with a delicious nastiness by junior Haley Callahan Fish. Her manipulative mother Velma, portrayed with intensity by senior Taylor Johnson, also serves as the producer of the TV show, and continually puts Tracy down in order to promote Amber.
But, luckily, Tracy has the charismatic Corny Collins himself on her side (a delightful and beguiling performance from senior Matt McLean). He’s not the only one rooting for the plucky teen; the show’s heartthrob, Link Larkin, played by the precious Colten Blair, takes special interest in Tracy’s bravery, and the two find a deeper connection. And Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton, may not be the smartest, but her lovable liveliness reassures Tracy throughout the show. Freshman Sarah Musicant brings a perfectly spastic and silly energy to Penny. Senior Jacob Voigt plays Tracy’s mother, Edna, with a lovely presence, particularly once she leaves her laundry at home and hits the town in “Welcome to the Sixties,” receiving a full makeover. As she makes her transformation, we see a new confidence blossom in Edna, and it’s all thanks to Tracy. Still, Tracy’s whacky father is another essential part of her support system. Wilbur continually urges his daughter to do the right thing, and his dorky, but endearing sensibility rubs off on Tracy (junior Emilio Madrid gets big laughs as Wilbur).
Tracy befriends Seaweed, a cool, magnetic, black guy, who is also a great dancer (the captivating Austin Crute), and she meets his mother, Motormouth Maybelle, the host of the Corny Collins Show on the monthly “Negro Day.” Motormouth, portrayed knowingly by sophomore Ada Obieshi, whose voice is stunning, continuously inspires and advises Tracy, and the two join together to protest the TV show’s inherent segregation; Seaweed’s sister, Little Inez (sophomore Kayla Coleman), auditioned for a spot as a dancer and was immediately turned away because of the color of her skin. By combining their efforts, Tracy and Motormouth’s crew are able to ambush the Miss Teenage Hairspray competition, and integrate television by dancing together. Seaweed and Penny even announce their romance while onscreen, and Penny’s uptight mother Prudy, the very funny Chloe Troast, comes to accept the couple. Link and Tracy end up together, Edna finds the confidence to appear on live television, the VonTussles get their just desserts, and the Corny Collins Show – and the fight for racial justice – is propelled forward.
Hairspray does have a very inspiring message of acceptance and love, but it is also just an extremely entertaining show to watch. The incredible dancing in TNT’s production really brings the performance to the next level. Not only is the choreography precise and lively, but it’s also flawlessly executed in unison by the nonstop ensemble. And the performers’ stamina is beyond impressive; they seem to hardly break a sweat, while going full force on fast moving, vigorous dances – and singing, too. You really can’t stop their beat.
Hairspray is impressive alone, but when we consider that it was mounted by NYU students, it makes us really appreciate the talent and drive of our classmates. If the cast and crew of Hairspray can put together this stunning, spectacular production on their own, and if a regular teenage girl can change the future of television, it seems we can do anything we put our minds and hearts to. As Tracy says, “you gotta think big to be big.” Tisch New Theatre does think big, and they pull it off with Hairspray – big time.