Review

Can’t stop Laguna’s ‘Hairspray’ beat; ‘Waist Watchers’ worth the weight at H.B.’s Library Theatre

Everything old is new again at the Laguna Playhouse, where the stage version of a 1988 John Waters movie is rocking out for today's audiences and eliciting standing ovations in the process.

The rejuvenated “Hairspray” won eight Tony Awards in 2003, including Best Musical, and it boasts not only sight and sound but substance. Set in 1962 Baltimore, the show comes down strongly on the racial divisions of the era shortly before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Its heroine is the pudgy Tracy Turnblad — rendered beautifully in Laguna by Nicole Powell — who battles prejudices against both heavy teens and African Americans (then called Negroes) — and finds romance in the process. Powell is a diminutive dynamo, championing her causes as she fights for her turn in the spotlight.

Four decades ago, Waters cast a cross-dressing actor, Divine, as Tracy's mother and the role has been played by a male actor ever since. At Laguna, James W. Gruessing Jr. baritones his way through the part, dwarfing the somewhat smaller Rick Grossman as “her” loving husband. Their duo, “You're Timeless to Me,” is predictably, a scream.

The primary antagonist, a blonde TV producer who once became “Miss Baltimore Crabs” and reminds one and all of that fact, is superbly rendered by Allison Foote. Her equally snooty daughter is well-played by Haley Chaney, while Tracy's cautious young boyfriend is nicely done by Tanner Callicut and Jared Kaitz is quite effective as the TV show host.

A breakout star in the supporting ranks is Jovan E. Watlington as Seaweed, the high-stepping black youth who woos Tracy's pal Penny (Kristen Daniels). Her uptight mom is sharply interpreted by Michelle Bendetti, while Seaweed's mother is a scene-stealing TV personality beautifully voiced by Dwan Hayes, who draws cheers for her solo “I Know Where I've Been.”

Director Paula Hammons Sloan conducts a huge ensemble of young performers who fill the playhouse's large stage to overflowing. Since no choreographer credit is given, it must be assumed Sloan handled that tricky assignment as well.

Accessing the Laguna Playhouse this time of the year can be tricky, but “Hairspray” makes it worth battling the festival crowds and parking difficulties. You'll find you “can't stop the beat” either after watching this splendid revival.

If You Go

What: “Hairspray”

When: Till July 30; 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

Cost: $45 - $80

Information: (949) 497-2787 or visit lagunaplayhouse.com.

“Waist Watchers” worth weighting for

The shedding of unwanted avoirdupois, especially among the female gender, has become a growing industry and it was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of turning the process into a stage musical.

That someone was Alan Jacobson, who concocted the book and lyrics for “WaistWatchers, The Musical,” a touring production now in residence at Huntington Beach's Library Theatre — which, for a quarter of a century, was the home of the Huntington Beach Playhouse.

He and music creator Vince DiMura were not above combing existing musicals for inspiration, which is why the show features tunes from such hits as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Mama Mia” and “A Chorus Line.” They saved the best, a full-blown “Don't Rain on My Parade” takeoff from “Funny Girl,” for the featured spot near the show's end.

The cast is composed of three ladies seeking slimmer figures working out under the tutelage of gym proprietor Carla, who possesses a shape the world should be in. This would be Kiley L. McDonald, whose energy and dedication propel the comical exercise.

The waist-watching trio includes two women quite in need of toning (Stephanie Genovese and Robin Lounsbury) and another (Krissy Johnson), whose body is so fine she can't keep her husband on his side of the bed. Another (Meagan Michelson) shows up intermittently in various incarnations.

All have excellent voices which could bounce off the rear wall of the theater, but it's Lounsbury, the chubbiest of the lot, who hits the high note with her “Funny Girl”-inspired tribute to fat ladies. Also memorable is McDonald's chocolate nightmare in which she's tempted by a variety of sweets.

Enthusiastically directed by Matt Silva, “Waist Watchers” is a slick, 95-minute exercise at which you'll burn off pounds just laughing. The show continues weekends through Aug. 8.

If You Go

What: “WaistWatchers, The Musical'

When: Thursdays at 2 and 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 8

Where: Huntington Beach Library Theatre, 7111 Talbert Ave.

Cost: $45 - $65

Information: (855) 448-7469 or visit waistwatchersthemusical.com.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

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