Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A Splashy Musical and an Austere Drama Both Score in Coral Gables

I had avoided it long enough. This past weekend, I was finally obligated to see “Hairspray,” a musical I’d dodged every time its national tour came,

because I’m not a masochist and would prefer an untortured evening to a tortured one. My prejudice against a show I’ve never seen is founded on a movie I did see – 2007’s “Hairspray,” which I panned as an unimaginative, saccharine, stupid, intellectually and atmospherically empty hatchet job on the original 1988 film “Hairspray.” If the movie musical was that horrible, the show on which it’s based can’t be much better, can it?

Oh yes it can. Very much so, if Actor’s Playhouse’s current production, which runs through Sunday, is any indication. I was pleased as punch to see that the civil-rights angle that formed the backbone of John Waters’ 1988 film was retained in the stage musical, losing none of its relevance even in such a lighthearted milieu. The songs are fun and hummable, especially the couple that didn’t make the film version’s final cut, for asinine reasons.

Actor’s Playhouse usually hits its seasonal high points with Broadway-ready productions of Broadway musicals, and if “Hairspray” doesn’t soar to the majestic emotional heights and impressive vocal extremities of the company’s recent “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables,” it’s largely because the source material isn’t as ambitious. You won’t be wowed out of your seat by the complexity of the dancing, and the sets never aspire toward much in the way of glittering spectacle. Where this production really excels is the direction of David Arisco – he makes sure there’s stuff going on in every corner of the stage, no matter how ancillary the players may be – and in his casting choices. Joline Mujica is marvelous as Tracy Turnblad, making artistic mincemeat out of Nikki Blonsky’s turn in the 2007 film. It’s a performance of infectious radiance and directness; she is awake to every nuance of her character, and we fall more in love with Tracy with every passing minute.

Avery Sommers naturallly steals every scene she’s in as Motormouth Maybelline, and Avi Hoffman is an inspired choice as Tracy’s motley-dressed father Wilbur. But it’s the image of Arisco himself, in drag as the mountainous Edna Turnblad, that may stick with you the most. Unlike John Travolta’s unintentionally frightening portrayal in the movie version, Arisco’s unabashedly campy turn earns the adjective divine.

***

Elsewhere in Coral Gables, “Red,” John Logan’s 2010 Tony Winner about painter Mark Rothko, is making its long-awaited regional theater debut at

GableStage, where it runs through Dec. 4. I had high expectations for both the play and the production, and I’m happy to report it excels on both accounts. Gregg Weiner brings an arrogant, sharklike urgency to Rothko, a bitter and conflicted abstract expressionist grappling with the increasing possibility that his soul-swallowing, anguished paintings are becoming hotel art for vapid bourgeoisie who could never earn his approval.

The setting is Rothko’s studio in the late 1950s – an evocative arrangement, with an imposing canvas as its centerpiece, from set designer Lyle Baskin. Rothko has accepted a lucrative commission to paint a frieze for a posh new Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. In the first scene, Rothko meets his new assistant Ken (Ryan Didato), his sounding board and eventual sparring partner for the next 85 minutes of heady, challenging and unpredictable discourse on the nature of art and commercialism.

With its references to Picasso and Pollack, Nietzsche and Shakespeare, Freud and Jung, Dionysus and Apollo, “Red” is an intellectual salon of theories and ideas, and it has the heft of work of literature you might have been assigned in high school, constructed to be analyzed line by line. As such, “Red,” as a text, leans heavily on an overly symbolic, measured coldness that might distance some viewers. Luckily, Weiner, and to a lesser but still moving extent Didato, infuse their characters with such humanity that we never forget we’re looking at flesh-and-blood and people and not mannequins for philosophical worldviews.

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