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Delightful Hairspray shimmies at Rainbow

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George Wendt's celebrity performance in Hairspray is like a heavily-sprayed 1960s beehive: it's stiff and it barely moves.

The Chicago-born star is so loved for his role as Norm on the TV series Cheers, however, that any criticism is sure to bounce off him like a fierce wind off a helmet hairdo.

Wendt, 62, is the weakest link in Rainbow Stage's highly entertaining production of the Tony-winning 2002 Broadway musical based on John Waters' 1988 movie.

His weary drag portrayal of Edna, the devoted, barge-sized mother of teen heroine Tracy Turnblad -- a role Wendt briefly played on Broadway four years ago -- is shallow and half-hearted when it should be rich and campy.

Wendt hits the notes -- delighting the crowd by dropping into bass range several times -- but he's a dismal, lumbering dancer who looked exhausted by show's end. That didn't stop Thursday's opening-night audience at the Kildonan Park theatre from greeting his every entrance and comic line with gales of adoring laughter.

Fortunately, most of the 25-member cast under director/choreographer Tracey Flye knows how to shake a tail feather and wail, doing justice to the infectious pop, gospel and R&B numbers by Marc Shaiman and endlessly clever lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

Kudos to Larry Mannell for bringing all the polish and energy Wendt lacks to the role of Edna's jokester husband.

Running just over 21/2 hours including intermission, the production boasts a first-rate pit band and much better sound quality than on opening night of Rainbow's earlier summer offering Cats, which was plagued by inaudible lyrics.

The snazzy sets and costumes, rented from the Charlottetown Festival, are period-perfect.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, Hairspray irresistibly celebrates the spunk, style and resilience of social outsiders, including "coloured" people, fat folks, rebellious "hair-hoppers" (girls who rat their 'dos) and special-ed students. It follows plump Tracy as she wins a spot as a dancer on the squeaky-clean Corny Collins TV show -- which allows black dancers only once a month on Negro Day -- and crusades to make it racially integrated.

While the musical has a simpler, sillier plot than the subsequent 2007 movie adaptation, it retains more of Waters' original risqué spirit, with lots of suggestive humour.

Jennifer Lyon nails the right comic tone as brassy Velma Von Tussle, the vain, racist TV-producer villain. Laura Mae Nason, though, is caricatured in the wrong way as her spoiled daughter Amber, coming across like an abrasive princess in a children's play instead of an entitled golden girl.

Winnipeg's towering Timothy Gledhill isn't charismatic as teen idol Link Larkin, but impresses with his smooth moves and vocals.

As Tracy, Montreal's Stephanie Pitsiladis brings a lovely voice and exuberant -- if sometimes too clownish -- energy. Her minimal dance ability is unfortunate, given that Tracy is supposed to be a gifted mover.

Ken Overbey and Jennifer Stewart actually outshine the leads as the secondary (interracial) couple, Seaweed and Penny. Overbey's loose, liquid, groovin' grace encapsulates the meaning of the show -- that freedom and dignity are internal -- though the band doesn't nail the funky-Motown feel of his showpiece Run and Tell That.

The Supremes-style Dynamite Girls (Andrea Lewis, Karen Burthwright and Allison Edwards-Crewe) are just that -- vocal and choreographic dynamite -- and Nadine Roden is a sensationally soulful Motormouth Maybelle.

You Can't Stop the Beat is one of the most glorious closing numbers in Broadway history, with its torrent of intricate lyrics ("the motion of the ocean") and ecstatic rock 'n' roll choreography.

It's the perfect expression of the musical's uplifting themes: that civil-rights progress is an avalanche that can't be stopped, that no one should let the world limit their personal empowerment, and that rhythm is an eternal lifeforce.

The crowd was swept up in the delirious "shake and shimmy" as Hairspray left us in an aerosol cloud of laughter and delight.

alison.mayes@freepress.mb.ca

Theatre review

  • Hairspray
  • Rainbow Stage
  • To Aug. 21 at Kildonan Park
  • Tickets $35-$55 at 989-0888 or www.rainbowstage.net
  • Four stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 6, 2011 G3

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