by Kevin Shaw | photos by Carla McDonald
I am disgusted! I started out annoyed and now I’m just outright pissed! As I sat through Hairspray last night at Theatre Memphis (which runs now through June 30, 2019), I could feel my blood really begin to boil. It was surreal! I was sitting there watching all these happy people singing and dancing and smiling and I was outraged! The injustice of it all! It’s not right and it’s not fair and yet it’s been going on for a very long time. Too long. Oh, did you think I was referring to the well-known plot of Hairspray about racial injustice in this country that has kept (and is still keeping) people of color marginalized and the youth revolution that led to the integration of a popular TV dance show? No, actually I was referring to the incomprehensible injustice that befalls fuller-sized performers who are essentially relegated to the chorus or to the “comic relief” roles instead of leading parts who have just as much (if not more) talent than their slimmer counterparts simply because of their waistlines. It’s wrong. It shouldn’t take a show like Hairspray that calls for the lead to be a “plus-sized” teen for Memphis audiences to get to experience the incredible talent that is Erica Peninger. Peninger can do it all—act, dance and sing her tail off with ease while smiling from ear to ear. She’s a dynamo and as I watched her soar, I couldn’t help but ask myself how many more opportunities is she going to get to shine like this on a Memphis stage or any stage for that matter? Is she ever going to be cast as a Glinda or Elphaba in Wicked or Belle in Beauty and the Beast or as Maria in The Sound of Music? Why not? She, like many others, have the talent. In fact, she’s closer to being a “normal” sized woman compared to most women today, but those opportunities probably won’t come. Why not? “Non-traditional” casting has made some (not enough) headway in theatre these days (Jelani Alladin, an African-American actor starred as Kristoff in Frozen on Broadway and Ali Stoker, a wheelchair bound actress recently won a Tony Award for her performance as Ado Annie in Oklahoma!), but when’s the last time you saw a plus-sized man or woman play the romantic lead in a play or musical? Why not? We’re all getting wider as a society, so why hide it? Perhaps it’s the last frontier in discrimination that needs to be conquered and talents like Peninger could easily lead the way.
Believe it or not, I really do hate repeating myself and this juggernaut partnership between Theatre Memphis and directors/choreographers Jordan Nichols/Travis Bradley is becoming quite difficult to describe. How many different ways can one say outstanding, impressive, top-notch? Suffice it to say, Hairspray, with their creative team back together again hits all the superlatives. The choreography is intense, exciting and marathonesque. The lighting by Mandy Kay Heath is bright, beautiful, colorful and fun. Amie Eoff’s costume designs are always first-rate and Jack Yates continues to create the most elaborate and impressive sets in Memphis. Literally, the very first note from Jeff Brewer’s orchestra is pristine and, it’s not often a sound designer gets a “shout out,” but Joshua Crawford’s design was flawless in that the singing vocals were perfectly balanced with the orchestra and every word was perfectly heard. When the technical side of a show is running on all cylinders, it elevates the performers to another level and this show positively levitates.
Theatre Memphis continues to showcase the hardest working ensembles in town and this show is no exception. Every member can shimmy, tap and sing at the highest level. Making it into the chorus of this community theatre means you’ve got real talent!
A huge part of a show’s success is casting it well and this show is strong with stand-out performances from Whitney Branan and Mikayla House as the narcissistic mother/daughter team from hell who offend everyone at every turn in their attempts to keep their world lily white. Both have incredible, powerhouse singing voices and kept me giggling throughout in both overt and subtle ways. I’ve seen this show many times and they were easily the best mother/daughter team I’ve seen yet. Caroline Simpson shines again (having done this role before) as Penny Pingleton the good-natured friend who gets lost in herself. Breyannah Tillman delivers the goods again as she brings down the house in her stirring rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” as Motormouth Maybelle. And Lance Raikes as Seaweed J. Stubbs and Jasmine James as Little Inez provide little rays of sunshine via song and dance.
Ultimately, though, this show is about Tracy Turnblad, the teenage girl who simply wants every day to be “Negro Day” and to dance on TV with her friends. She’s a positive, uplifting character who sees the good in everyone and gets everything she wants in the end. Erica Peninger is the true star of this show and she could easily play this role on Broadway or the National Tour. With a talent like hers, my only hope is that the message of inclusion that is Hairspray will radiate to the theatres in Memphis and across this nation and they’ll realize that, when it comes to size, the only “big” that matters is talent.
Now Through June 30, 2019