Teenage dreams and orphan adventures at Theatre Under the Stars

Photo courtesy of Tim Matheson.

Hairspray

The sixties are brought to life in all their colourful, flamboyant glory in Hairspray. Peppy songs, bouncy dresses, and a feel-good story make this a classic musical everyone can enjoy.

When Tracy Turnblad (Erin E. Walker) auditions for the Corny Collins Show, Amber Von Tussle (Elyse Maloway) and her mother Velma, the show’s producer, put her down and tell her she’ll never be on TV due to her weight. She soon proves them wrong with her smooth dance moves, and becomes the hero of the show.

Tracy is also heroic because of her determination to make the Corny Collins show an integrated program. “I wish every day was negro day,” she declares. With the help of her friends and teenage heartthrob Link Larkin, she campaigns to have black dancers treated as equals on the show, much to the dismay of Velma.

This is a musical jam packed with catchy songs; I still have the infectious line, “stop, don’t, no, please!” from “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” stuck in my head, and this number was a highlight of the show. Tracy and her mom Edna, Tracy’s best friend Penny and her mom, and Amber and Velma stood in their own area of the stage, each pair having their own disagreement and singing their hearts out to plead with each other.

The dancing throughout was punchy and coordinated, with impressive partner work for the Corny Collins couples, as they burst forth from the stage in bright suits and dresses next to an even brighter set.

Not only is the show full of impressive dance moves of the era, but it also has some pretty darn impressive voices, including Motormouth Maybelle (Cecilly Day), the proprietor of Motor Mouth’s Record Shop. Her song, “I Know Where I’ve Been” would have blown the roof off Malkin Bowl if it had one.

Corny Collins (Chris D. King) and Velma Von Tussle (Lori Ashton Zondag) were very well-cast and portrayed their exaggerated, ignorant characters with zeal. Link Larkin (Dustin Freeland), Tracy’s love interest, was a character you were never sure if you loved or hated — one minute he was supporting Tracy, and the next he was about to run back to Amber. Edna (Andy Toth), Tracy’s mother was overbearing in an endearing way, and Toth played this cross dressing role with pizazz and plenty of class.

If you weren’t dancing in your seat yet, “Can’t Stop the Beat,” the lengthy, exuberant finale is sure to get you moving. With big hair, lots of heart, and loud colours galore, everything is exaggerated in this high energy musical, including the flouncy dresses, over the top songs, and of course Edna, Tracy’s large, lovable mother.

Oliver!

Photo courtesy of Tim Matheson.
Photo courtesy of Tim Matheson.

The iconic image of an orphan boy holding out his bowl and pleading, “please sir, I want some more,” is what comes to mind for many people when they hear mention of Oliver Twist. This musical has those iconic images of Oliver (Carly Ronning), Fagan (Stephen Aberle), and the Artful Dodger (Nathan Piasecki), along with rousing songs and plenty of British flair.

Before the show began, there was a prologue of a Village Fair, and this was done on the grounds in front of the stage surrounding the audience, allowing people to wander around as if at a real village fair. There were carnival games to play, snacks to buy, and jolly villagers passing by. This energy moved onto the stage for the opening scene in the workhouse.

Oliver is among the orphans at the workhouse eating gruel, while Mr. Bumble (Damon Calderwood) flirts with the Widow Corney (Kara McLachlan). The exaggerated gap between rich and poor is on display while Mr. Bumble stuffs his face with cakes, and Oliver is sold to an undertaker. He soon runs away from that frightening place and makes his way to London where the Artful Dodger picks him up and takes him to Fagin’s place.

Fagin takes Oliver under his wing and teaches him how to pick pockets, joining his band of thieves. There aren’t many memorable or overly catchy songs in this show, but “Pick a Pocket or Two” is one that might get your toes tapping. Granted, “Consider Yourself” may stick with the audience, too, but only because it is done as a singalong.

The set and costumes beautifully created scenes of a Chelsea Fair, a dingy pub, Fagin’s Lair, and the workhouse. With a large set piece on each side of the stage that moved on and off it, the set was flexible, and it was nice to see the musicians seated atop these structures.

While I didn’t enjoy this show as much as Hairspray, it did have some strong performances from Oliver, Fagin, and the Artful Dodger. Some of the other characters were bothersome, though, like a rose seller who sang “Who will buy my sweet red roses?” in between almost every scene. This repetitive refrain never really amounted to anything and seemed to serve little other purpose than setting a melancholy tone. Some performers’ Londoner accents fell flat or wavered at times, too, which was another downfall.

By far the most troublesome aspect of this musical is the storyline of Nancy (Elizabeth Marie West), Bill Sykes’ (Damon Calderwood) girlfriend. The character was terribly pathetic as she sang about staying true to Bill and never leaving him as long as he needed her. To make it worse, this follows right after he’s almost choked her friend to death and been abusive to her. Loving him is her tragic flaw, but it’s hard to feel sorry for her when he is so clearly deranged.

Hairspray and Oliver! are presented by Theatre Under the Stars on alternate nights from Jul 10 to Aug 22. For more information, visit tuts.ca.