by Kate Zegans, The Triton
Muir Musical is an entirely student-run organization, formed to fill a perceived lack of musical theatre opportunities on campus. It is composed mostly of non-theatre majors. This year, the musical’s team (including cast, crew, production, and orchestra, etc.) consisted of over 100 students. With such a diverse, hard-working team, it’s no wonder they turned out a first-rate production.
The show was underscored with vibrant, colorful sets featuring plenty of technical flourishes; when the curtains parted to reveal a city setting, it did not feel like I was watching a college production. The detail in the background sets was impeccable and had the appropriate amount of color and sixties kitsch for a bubbly musical like Hairspray. These were not amateur backdrops: the sets included a Rube Goldberg machine and other moving elements. Not only were the sets skillfully crafted, but the full orchestral music and choreography were also vibrant and professional. It was clear; the pit crew who took the actors through this challenging piece were first-rate.
Hairspray was what college theatre is all about: the humor, the camp, the improv.
But could this type of stage be too big for less-experienced actors? All and all, no. Though the show was not flawless — there were moments in which choreography was lost, mics did not work the way they should have, and notes were not quite on pitch — it did not matter: the energy that the cast brought to the production far overshadowed any technical shortcomings. It is no surprise, then, that the strongest parts of the show were the characters who took advantage of the comedic moments and brought personality for days.
Though this was true of the whole cast, a few actors in particular caught my eye: Chloris Li, who played a spunky, non-traditional Penny Pingleton, had the dancing and vocal ability to create huge personality and star quality in a character who would fade into the background of the play in some productions. Alongside her was Elijah Douglas as Seaweed J. Stubbs, in his first musical theatre performance, giving presence and vocals to spare. Also worthy of praise were the performances of Hailey Schneider as Velma Von Tussle, bringing campy villany and some of the best vocal moments of the show, and Kevin Kubo as Edna Turnblad, who infused heart and authenticity as well as larger-than-life comedy to the iconic role. These actors and the rest of the cast brought the energy and comedy which made the show fun for the audience.
When I attended a “talk back” about the show after the performance, it became clear that the cast was having plenty of their own fun. The students laughed and shared their intricate fictionalised backstories for even the smallest roles and stories about their improvised moments. The cast deeply bonded and had a great time, and through their quality production and direction, they were able to take the audience along with them.
However, there was a pretty large elephant in the auditorium, which appears when discussing any production of Hairspray: its regressive interpretation of the civil rights movement. Central to the show is a “white savior” narrative. For those unfamiliar with the musical, it tells the story of a white teenager, Tracy Turnblad, leading a protest movement to racially integrate a TV show on which she performs. The issue with stories like Hairspray is that they focus on white people’s interactions with racism as the main source of conflict, rather than telling the stories of those who actually face racial oppression. Furthermore, it presents a false narrative that white people have been primarily responsible for “liberating” people of color, when in fact, the opposite is true.
Acknowledging the inherent shortcomings of the plot, the cast shared the ways they worked to resolve these tensions. They cited how in their version of the number “I Know Where I’ve Been,” in which Motormouth Maybelle reflects on the long struggle for racial equality, they projected clips from the American civil rights movement of the sixties. The cast also pointed out that Lil Inez (Motormouth’s daughter) took Tracy’s place and won Miss Teen Hairspray in their production. Unlike the original screenplay, this gave the final victory to a protagonist of color. These are certainly useful changes, but they are far from comprehensive. The troupe recognized the failings and put up a poster board for incoming and outgoing patrons to share their thoughts about what Hairspray says about race. While there were some affirmations of Hairspray’s mission on the night I attended, such as “Hairspray is relevant. Hairspray is forever” and several comments highlighting the inspiring comradery of the black and white characters, there were also several less impressed contributors. One read simply “White. Savior. Complex.” another said “the resolution doesn’t offer much to the race issue.”
As a white student, I do not feel qualified to determine whether Hairspray should be performed. What I can analyze is the quality of the production, and what I saw on April 11 was a fantastic production of a questionable show. In my opinion, Hairspray was what college theatre is all about: the humor, the camp, the improv. These are the flourishes that are characteristic of what college students and non-classically trained actors can bring to theatre: a fun energy which makes musical theatre feel fresh again, despite an antiquated script.