In two productions that opened at the Progress Energy Center this past weekend, the subject is changing times and black-white relations, but a century apart. The first is a campy family musical, while the other is a one-act, two-person Civil War drama.
The biggest challenge facing any new production of Hairspray is, ironically, nostalgia for Hairspray itself. N.C. Theatre's production at Memorial Auditorium labors in the shadows of the 1989 film, which became a hit Broadway musical, then a hit musical film and is now a frequently revived production that competes with our memories of the earlier versions.
Hairspray is the family-friendliest in the shock comedy oeuvre of John Waters. It's the uplifting tale of the stout, and stout-hearted, Tracy Turnblad (Jennifer Foster), who defiantly realizes her dream of dancing on the local Corny Collins Show. Along the way, she integrates the lily-white dancers and wishes that "every day was Negro Day!" In many ways, Hairspray is the predecessor for the likes of TV's Glee. Yes, it's a traditional underdog/ Cinderella story, but it's also a tale where, dammit, the power of music and dance turns a plus-size girl into a goddess and turns an obvious drag queen (Dale Hensley in the role played by Divine on film, Harvey Fierstein on stage, John Travolta in the film of the stage version, etc.) into a glamorous diva.
The N.C. Theatre production suffered a few slight technical difficulties opening night (a blue light kept flickering in the light-up background, and the lyrics for a few songs sounded unclear in the middle of the auditorium), but like Tracy, it had plenty of spirit. Foster is winning as Tracy, and there's crack comic timing from the helium-voiced Dana Steingold, as her meek sidekick Penny Pingleton, and Donell James Foreman, as the perpetually upbeat African-American Seaweed J. Stubbs.
The story's hardly a documentary account of the civil rights movement, but its awareness of its own silliness practically dares you to defy its infectious charms. By the end, this show that features a number titled "The Legend of Miss Baltimore Crabs" had earned a standing ovation from a room ranging from children to the elderly. That's an achievement that Waters himself would approve.
Paying in the black box at the rear of Progress Energy Center as part of Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, A Field of Glory is the polar opposite of Hairspray, in both tone and theme. A new script by Sharon Talbot, Glory fails to transcend the clichés of its premise, as Hairspray does, but it still brings an honesty and veracity to many aspects of its production.
The tale is set entirely in the garden of Rosalia Taylor (Talbot), a plantation owner's wife in 1862 Mississippi. Rosalia's one-sided conversation with her plants is disrupted by the return of her son John (Jesse Janowsky), who's been off fighting for the Confederacy. Rosalia dotes on her first-born as he helps her with his plants and regales her with tales of the battlefield, which slowly give way to his thoughts on how things should change and the realities of the violence he's experienced.
Talbot clearly knows her history: Glory is filled with details about life in the soldiers' camps and of particular battles. The set design by Chris Bernier (with props by Richard Young) also does wonders with the limited stage space, creating a garden set that feels lived-in.
The play falters a bit when it tries to work in a series of twists at the end that feel both familiar and on-the-nose. Its biggest strength is the imperfect but genuinely affectionate relationship between Rosalia and John, two people who disagree but are honest in their feelings. The story thankfully doesn't try to punt this for some sort of The Subject Was Roses-type melodrama, but it works better when the two are discussing their encounters with the dead on a battlefield or the death of John's young sister than when it becomes a more traditional anti-war/ anti-slavery homily.
The performances are strong, particularly Janowsky, who combines an old-school Southern gentleman with an energetic physicality as his character loosens up. There's a sweet, compelling story in Glory's one act, but despite its brevity, it might have been a better play if it had ended five minutes earlier.