Monday, August 15, 2011

Hairspray and Molière in Austin

Posted By on Mon, Aug 15, 2011 at 12:57 PM

click to enlarge zach_hairspray_14jpg

This past week, I grabbed a twofer in Austin: Molière’s Imaginary Invalid at the City Theatre and Hairspray at the Zach Scott. (Commentators on my blog and reviews occasionally complain that my point of comparison for San Antonio theatre is New York theatre; that’s nonsense. I’ve also got Austin, Dallas, and Houston on my theatrical radar – those are my real points of comparison for San Antonio theatre.)

In fact, I’ve been itching to see a show at the new-ish City Theatre for some time now; ensconced in small, funky digs on Austin’s East Side—in a space not unlike San Antonio’s Overtime theater, in fact—City Theatre would seem a likely suspect for some groovy, innovative art. Indeed, I was looking forward to seeing something of the caliber of Austin’s hole-in-the-wall Hyde Park Theater, which offers consistently rewarding productions in what can be generously described as a challenging space. But alas (or, as Molière might write, hélas!), the City Theatre clearly bit off more than it could chew with its go-for-broke production of Molière’s satire of the medical industry. In a sense, the production couldn’t be more topical—Obamacare is still tomorrow’s news—but director Karen Sneed just couldn’t hold together the huge cast, the lengthy (and dubiously sung) production numbers, and the original score. (The teeny stage doesn't help.) At two and a half hours, the show could definitely use some trimming—a clowning scene in act one goes nowhere—and the concluding send-up up of Hillary Clinton seemed to channel 1998 instead of 2012: not exactly the stuff of contemporary satire.

Meanwhile, the two-and-a-half hours of Hairspray seemed to fly by, buoyed by an immensely talented cast with no weak links. (In the decade or so that I’ve been seeing shows at the Zach Scott, this has been the greatest, and most welcome, change: the consistency of the productions. Let us pass over some previous misfires in silence.) Though the thrust configuration of the Kleberg stage occasionally cramps Robin Lewis’ retro choreography, this is still the zippiest thing I’ve seen on Texas stages in a long, long time. Camp has always been director David Steakley’s strong suit, and the John Waters-inspired Hairspray allows him to pull out all the stops (and nozzles), even if the social-justice undertones of the piece are muted by the non-stop riot of color and dance. While all the performances were strong, I had a hard time taking my eyes off Joshua Denning’s acrobatic Seaweed and Christine Tucker’s proto-revolutionary Penny: two supporting roles that demonstrate the considerable depth of Zach Scott’s talent pool. When the evening wraps up with the impossibly catchy “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” Hairspray practically ignites.

--Thomas "Ultra Clutch Hair Products" Jenkins, Current theatre critic.

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