Vancouver’s iconic summer institution – Theatre Under The Stars – celebrates its 70th season this year and it could not have picked two more relevant pieces to stage: Hairspray and Oliver!
This was the 2nd version of Hairspray I had seen, after a Broadway touring show in late 2008. This one was almost better. It struck a chord more so with me now then it did back then, primarily because of the issues prevalent in the play. For the uninitiated, Hairspray, based on the film by John Waters, takes place in 1960s Baltimore at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Racism, equality and even women’s liberation are all prominently featured throughout the two hour play. In spite of campy nature, the parallels to what is happening today in Baltimore in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Grey was not lost on me. To quote a song from the 2007 film “We’ve come so far, we’ve got so far to go”. This play takes place in 1962 Baltimore, over 50 years ago, and yet in many ways it feels like little has changed when it comes to race relations.
The cast was magnificent. While I did that Erin Walker at times was a little warbly and had a lower register than what I am used to from the Tracy character, she and her hair were perky enough to hold the show together. The standout for me was Chris King as Corny Collins, whom he portrayed as an over-the-top, cheesy, ratings-driven and smarmy host. King also doubles as the show’s music director. While the show is, for the part, upbeat and funny, it does have its moments of genuine emotion and sincerity. The most powerful moment without a doubt is when Cecilly Day, as Motormouth Maybelle, sings the protest gospel tune “I Know Where I’ve Been”, which has always been my favourite song of the whole show. On this particular night it was enhanced by the fact that dusk was descending upon Stanley Park and with the bright stage light shining down, Day became a silhouetted figured. The audience applauded and hollered before she was finished; every seat feeling the raw emotion that always come through that particular piece.
Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle in Hairspray (2007 film)
It was a wonderful night and a truly marvellous performance of a timeless play.
The second show at TUTS this year is Oliver!, Lionel Bart’s musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Oliver! is somewhat unique among stage musicals in that it has a large child cast. It hit me that it was sort of a cross between Annie and Les Miserables! While the show was beset with a few minor technical problems and sound glitches, the production values were spectacular. One of the visual highlights for me was when it started to rain on stage.
I applaud director Shel Piercy’s ability to reinvent such a classic show. While, I don’t think every choice worked, it was refreshing to see a new take on an oft-performed musical. One such moment was having Erin Palm as the Rose Seller repeat the two lines of her melancholy refrain during the opening of what seemed like every other scene. For me, it really exemplified the tragic circumstances in which the majority of the characters in the play – particularly the children – live.
I felt like I was 13 again, as I was in a production during my final year of Middle School. It felt slightly ironic that the only song I didn’t remember the words was my own (for the record I played Mr. Sowerberry the undertaker who sings “That’s My Funeral”).
Another aspect that I enjoyed was the pre-show. It featured on-stage entertainment, a Punch-and-Judy show, carnival games, and a sing-along of “Consider Yourself“. (During the performance of that number in the show, Stephen Aberle – who portrayed Fagin – brought it full circle and asked the audience why we weren’t singing along).
As with every show, there are always standouts. One person I noticed instantly was Carly Ronning – who happens to be the daughter of former hockey player Cliff – the 11 year old girl (yes girl) who played Oliver. (The practice of having a young female portray the title character is not an uncommon practice). This was her very first time being on a stage and not only did she have the right blend of innocence and toughness, but she also showed us that she can really sing. While Oliver! is a lot more of a sing-song/talk-sing style than the belt style of Hairspray, there are some powerful ballads.
I mentioned the continued relevance of Hairspray but Oliver! deserves to mentioned on that note as well. There has been much discussion lately on income inequality and poverty, that Oliver! seems particularly in tune at this current moment, especially here in Vancouver. The fact that so many children – here and abroad – are going through or have gone through what Oliver, Dodger and Co. are living on stage makes it that much more real and emotional.
Rumour of a new film adaptation to be produced by the great Cameron Mackintosh with Samantha Barks as Nancy are swirling
Oliver! and Hairspray run on alternating nights at Theatre Under The Stars at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park, Vancouver until August 22nd.
This review is dedicated to the great Ron Moody
For a different take on “I Know Where I’ve Been” –