Junior versions of shows always make me apprehensive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fervent supporter of getting kids involved in the arts, and there are plenty of shows out there that make great kids’ productions. But there are some shows where the heart of the show can be lost with censorship.
I went into Footlight Jr’s production of Hairspray Jr curious as to how it would be adapted for a younger group of performers. As far as musicals go, there isn’t a ton of explicit content, but racial segregation is a key theme, without which, there’s not much story left. As it turns out, Hairspray Jr maintains all of the integrity of the original production, and this production does it with excellent choreography and an energetic young cast.
Hairspray is the story of Tracy Turnblad (Emily Fleet), a big girl with big hair and big dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show. It’s the 1960s, a time when ratted hair was all the rage and segregation was still rampant across the country. Tracy has the chance to audition for the show, but her mother, Edna (Makenna Beaudoin), disapproves. At the auditions, she meets former Miss Baltimore Crabs, Velma Von Tussle (Julia Ahaesy), mother of the sassy, snobby Amber (Isabella Manchester). Though the two have their own mother-daughter issues, they are united in wanting to keep Tracy off the show, but Tracy ends up impressing Corny Collins (Nick Lannigan) and eventually, the world – and most importantly, Amber’s boyfriend and costar Link Larkin (Matt Macy) – with the help of Seaweed Stubbs, a black classmate who teaches her some moves. When Tracy meets the rest of Seaweed’s family, including his sister Little Inez (Alessandra Maldonado) and their mother Motormouth Maybelle (Savannah DaSilva), she decides to use her newfound fame to end segregation on the show, whatever the consequences.
Before the show starts, a vertical bed stands at center stage with Tracy pretending to sleep in it. This was an interesting choice, as the audience has to watch this kid fake-sleeping on stage for the 40 or so minutes the house is open – all the while, poor Fleet has to remain standing. Much to her credit, she is a skilled fake-sleeper, utilizing just the right amount of movement and fake snoring. As far as pre-show immersion goes, however, this didn’t do it for me.
In the first number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” Fleet emerges from her slumber and reveals what a powerhouse she is. I don’t know if this show was chosen because they knew they had the perfect Tracy Turnblad in Fleet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was.
As the Von Tussles, Manchester and Ahaesy are delightfully sassy and stuck-up and deliver their clever but biting insults brilliantly.
For me, the show was stolen by Jillian Levesque as Tracy’s perky, pig-tailed partner in crime, Penny Pingleton, and by Derek Alexander as Seaweed Stubbs, both individually and later on as an interracial couple ready to combat the world’s hate with their love.
The cast is rounded out by a huge ensemble that fills up the stage both spatially and with their enthusiasm, especially in the show-stopping “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” I also have to give props for some of the wacky, gravity-defying hairstyles that appear toward the end, along with the fabulous costumes.
Hairspray Jr is a fun production, and while, like any kids’ show, not everything is perfect, the enthusiasm of the cast is infectious and only the most stone-hearted person alive would fail to have a good time watching them.
Footlights Jr’s Hairspray Jr ran Aug 5 & 6 at Morton Middle School in Fall River, Mass.