"Hairspray", reveals an entertaining and yet edifying look at racial undercurents in Baltimore, Maryland in 1962

Woodminster Theater photo: by Kathy Kahn “In the jailhouse, Link Larkin (Johnny Orenberg) professes his deep admiration for Tracy Turnblad (Serena Cefalu)!”

Two terrific shows have just opened this week. The first review is a fun-filled local production of the musical comedy, “Hairspray”, at the Woodminster Amphitheater in the Oakland Hills. The second show is California Shakespeare’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s provocative and brilliantly directed play, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, at the Bruins Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda.

“Hairspray” was a highly successful Broadway musical comedy that last appeared in the Bay Area as a touring professional show in 2004 at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. The original Broadway production opened in 2002 and won eight Tony Awards out of the thirteen for which it was nominated. It ran for over 2500 performances and while the Broadway production closed in 2009, the show is still touring internationally.

The story takes place in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1962 and tells us about a plump teenager, Tracy Turnblad (Serena Cefalu), and her dream to dance on the Corny Collin’s Show, a local Baltimore TV dance party program, modeled after the popular Buddy Deane Show (similar to Dick Clarke’s American Bandstand) on Baltimore Television station WJZ-TV.
The real “Buddy Deane Show” premiered in 1957, aired for 2 ½ hours a day, six days a week. For a time, it was the most popular local show in the United States, being emulated in various television markets across the country. In the show, there was a core group of teenagers who appeared regularly as the dancers and were considered part of the “Committee”. The “Committee” had a huge following, drawing its own fans, which, like groupies, followed the committee members’ lives, emulating their dance moves, clothing, makeup and hair styles.

Now back to the musical version and the Corny Collins Show. When one of the “Committee” members had to drop out of the show, the production company’s sponsor, a hairspray company, held a contest to promote the show and the potential new “Committee” member. Tracy Turnblad turned out for the contest and won the spot on the show as the new “Committee” member.

This musical actually provides a thinly disguised social statement on racial segregation that was prevalent in the 60’s, in dance shows similar to this format. The television networks were just beginning to have to deal with racism across America. Many top performing acts of the day, both black and white, appeared on the show. Competition between Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and the Buddy Deane Show brought out some pretty nasty network rivalry and appearance protocols. If an act appeared first on the Buddy Dean Show, the Dick Clark show banned them from appearing on their show at all. If they appeared on American Bandstand first, however, they could still appear on the Buddy Deane Show. Westinghouse Broadcasting (now CBS) “blacked out” the American Bandstand show in the Baltimore area because they were promoting the Buddy Dean Show, and reportedly because American Bandstand allowed black teenagers to dance together on its show. The Buddy Deane Show responded to criticism about its “no black dancers” policy by eventually featuring only black teenagers every other Friday, while white dancers performed and participated in the show the rest of the time.

Tracy Turnblad challenges the look-alike musical version of the television show, the Corny Collin’s show, to drop its narrow view of black dancers having to deal with similar participation restrictions on a bi-weekly basis. She launches a campaign to integrate the show. Tracy’s journey and her quest to overcome these prejudices eventually works out, but not until she spends some time in jail with her family and friends.

The show engages a very colorful group of characters (played by superb actors), including Tracy’s joke shop owner father, Wilber (Ken Baggott); her bigger-than-life mother, Edna (Greg Carlson), her girlfriend and constant companion Penny Pingleton (Erika Leigh Henningsen), show host Corny Collins (Ryan Drummond), show producer Velma Von Tussle (Teressa Byrne), and her beautiful daughter, Amber Von Tussle (Samantha Bruce). Link Larkin (Johnny Orenberg), an aspiring “moves-and-groves-like-Elvis” member of the Collins “Committee”, is completely self-absorbed (when he is not being clung to by self-promoting Amber Von Tussle), that is, until the compelling and unrelenting champion of civil rights, Tracy Turnblad, wakes him from his personal promotional coma and enrolls him in her cause.

Another young (19 year old) entertainer, Seaweed J. Stubbs (Dave Abrams), the leader of the black dancer pact, is utterly spellbinding. Abrams is almost a show stopper and this young man is someone I definitely want to keep my eyes on, as this kid is definitely headed someplace big! Seaweed’s mother, Motorbouth Maybelle (Erica Richardson), is a rather imposing and powerful talent who is a record shop owner and a lady who holds her own dance parties and shepherds the youthful black dancing community. Richardson is a powerful entertainer who adds significantly to the kaleidoscope of charismatic color that is bound to captivate you. The cast is huge, with over 30 different actors, dancers and singers that will leave you laughing and clapping and wishing the evening would last much longer.

Hairspray is an upbeat, fun-filled musical with book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Director Joel Schlader has stepped in as the artistic director, appearing to be taking the production reins from his mother, Harriet Schlader and his father, James Schlader, who passed away recently at age 96. The musical direction by Richard Vetterli is superb and the choreography by Bong Dizon is quite frankly, stunning, brilliantly executed. For a show that is made up primarily of amateur performers (only 6 cast members are Equity Actors), this is probably as good as it gets.

I highly recommend the little drive over to Joaquin Miller Park, above highway 13 and the Mormon Temple, at 3300 Joaquin Miller Road, in the Oakland Hills. Theatre under the stars can be a bit chilly, even this late in July, so dress in layers and bring a tush cushion if you do not have ample cushioning of your own. This is a great place to come early, bring a picnic basket and eat dinner in the park before the theatre performs in the evening. You can also purchase food in theater compound. Try the polish sausage from the hotdog vender at intermission. These are "super duper" Dogs! All shows begin at 8 p.m., running now though July 18th (next weekend). Ticket prices range between $25 and $40 each, with a $2 discount for children and seniors. Call (510) 531-9597 or go online to Ticketweb.com or contact http://www.woodminster.com/ for additional information or ordering tickets.

George Bernanrd Shaw once again proves his incredible understanding of women's most haunting issues as is written in "Mrs. Warren's Profession"

In the mid 1880’s George Bernard Shaw, a basically self-educated writer, became well known as a sharp tongued and prickly critic of both music and dramatic arts. As a theatre critic, he “championed what he termed the new drama”. He elicited new works that would tackle the problems and taboos of his times. He lauded the works of Henrik Ibsen and was disturbed that no one was confronting these issues in his time, other than Ibsen. Finally, out of frustration, in the 1890’s, GBS began to write what he termed, the”unpleasant plays”, including “Widower’s Houses”, “The Philanderer” and “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”. They were not initially very successful, but they began the process for him, a process that has brought to the stage some of the truly great examinations of the social and political cesspool of the 1890’s.

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, currently in production in California Shakespeare’s Orinda Theater, is a remarkably powerful play about Mrs. Warren, a bright woman who overcame the inequity of her birth and station, by discovering how to meld her personal attractiveness and ability to provide men a pleasurable experience, into the fabric of fashionable morality. She learned to re-fashion her financial shortcomings into a well tailored garment of prosperity, providing the appearance of financial success that bespoke of literacy and consequently acceptability and respectability to those uninformed as to her true path to unwed motherhood and acceptable social standing. Later in life, Mrs. Warren (Stacy Ross) has partnered with men who have channeled her earnings into a diverse base of investments, for the most part, in financial partnerships that have brought her ample wealth. She has protected her daughter, Vivie Warren (Anna Bullard), from any true knowledge as to her mother’s fields of financial endeavor or sexual proclivity, sending the child to the best boarding schools and educational facilities that money could buy. As the show opens, young Miss Warren has recently graduated from a higher institute of learning and is at a friend’s home, awaiting reunification with her rarely-seen mother, a mother whose time is generally immersed in the management of her extensive and widely flung financial holdings.

Vivie, like her mother, is not to be taken lightly or superficially. She is a very strong willed and centered young woman, determined to make her own way in the world. Within moments of the arrival of her mother’s entourage, her mother and wealthy partner, Sir George Crofts (Andy Murray), it becomes clear to all in attendance, that this long alienated daughter has no immediate need or desire to return to the protection of her mother’s bosom or to reside in the safety of her mother’s newly outspread wings. Also in attendance is a family friend, Mr. Praed (Dan Hiatt), a life-long supporter of the arts and music. A local clergyman, Reverend Samuel Gardner (Rod Gnap) and his son, Frank Gardner (Richard Thieriot), also have personal interests in seeing the family re-unite. Young Frank Gardner, we discover has had a very personal relationship with young Warren, during the time they apparently attended the same school. As in one of those “look how small the world really is” experiences, we discover that Frank’s father apparently had a fling with Mrs. Warren in his younger days, before he entered the clergy. Even her business partner, Sir George Crofts, apparently has had a long standing “personal” relationship with Mrs. Warren, as well as a financial relationship.

Vivie is not about to engage her mother in typical mother-daughter embraces until Vivie gets some long awaited answers to some long avoided and unanswered questions. Who is her father, where is he now, where are their family members, and what exactly is it her mother does for a living? Will her mother support her desire to be an independent woman, bent on entering a business, as a partner with a woman for whom she had worked previously as an assistan?. The gauntlet is thrown down and the evening moves on, engaging competing interests, conflicting stories and half truths.

Sir George Crofts makes his move to wed the young woman, a quarter of a century his junior. Frank Gardner, a playboy with no hope or desire to support himself, has intentions of marrying his wealthy girlfriend, the younger Miss Warren. The mother, Mrs. Warren, wants to be a “token” mother no longer. She seeks to reconcile with her daughter, even after the revelation of her own life’s immoral path, a path that ultimately led her to her current life of fortune wed to misfortune.

The play provides an evening full of laughter, anger, deceit and revelation. It demonstrates how close to the tree of life our children often are to ourselves, that their values may be quite disparate from our own and yet how similar and dissimilar our destiny and paths may be. This is a brilliantly powerful work that is amazingly insightful for a play written by a man about women. I cannot recommend it enough.

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” runs Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., with Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Saturday matinee on July 31st at 2 p.m., and Sunday performances at 4 p.m., now through August 1st . The Bruns Amphitheater is located at 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (new name, used to be Gateway Blvd.), just off highway 24 at the new Wilder Road Exit. All tickets are available at the California Shakespeare Theater box office at 701 Heinz Avenue, in Berkeley. You may call (510) 548-9666 of visit their website on line at http://www.calshakes.org/ . Single tickets range in price between $34 and $70 with discounts for seniors. The grounds open two hours before each show for picnicking.

The new 7000+ square foot Sharon Simpson Center is now open providing more comfortable seating for the house café for customers and personnel, new restrooms, and offices. The theater is still subject to the whims of the weather, as this is an outdoor amphitheatre, so be sure to dress warmly with layers of clothing that you may adjust according to need. When that fog comes over the hills, it can get downright cold and uncomfortable in the outdoor seating. Blankets are available for a small donation on the premises.