Out & About: 'Hairspray,' 'Headcase' are upcoming best bets

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One of the most popular Broadway shows of recent times is my top pick of the tix over the next week or so, as Portland Ovations presents a touring professional production of “Hairspray” Jan. 28-29 at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium.

On the surface, “Hairspray” is a cute and tuneful musical that revolves around a teenage character with a big bouffant hairdo and a passion for dancing. On a deeper level, the unlikely heroine of “Hairspray” explores some key elements of character: discovering her identity and standing up for her values.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra presents a new composition on Sunday. Titled “Headcase,” it’s a composer’s own story of his recovery from a stroke. More familiar works by Maurice Ravel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart round out the bill


A teenager with a passion for dancing and a naive sense of right and wrong confronts injustice in her world. Then she rights those wrongs, on her own terms.

That’s the key concept that drives “Hairspray,” the utterly delightful and immensely entertaining 2002 Broadway hit that won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score. The show is based on the 1988 John Waters cult classic movie of the same name. The original stage production ran over 2,600 performances before closing last year. Several very successful national tours have been launched.

The latest of these stops is Portland for two nights, Jan. 28-29. I saw the national tour the first time it stopped in Portland, and I expect that I’ll be seeing it a second time next week. (It was also very well produced by both Maine State Music Theatre and Ogunquit Playhouse two summers ago.)

The musical has a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and a score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The setting is Baltimore in 1962, and the central character is Tracy Turnblad, an overweight 15-year-old with an oversized hairdo and an outsized passion for dancing. She dreams of starring on the “Corny Collins Show,” a televised rock-and-roll teen party modeled after “American Bandstand.”

Shunned and ridiculed because of her weight, Tracy allies herself with another group that has suffered unfairly: black teens who are permitted to appear on the show only once a month on “Negro Day.” Tracy wants to dance together with her black friends on the Collins show; her crusade to integrate Baltimore’s local TV teen party provides the plot of “Hairspray.”

It’s a satirical take on the fashions of the early 1960s with an inspirational message about personal and social values that’s delivered via a teenage girl’s experiences. Tracy’s buoyant optimism and her rousing determination to do the right thing is the most uplifting aspect of this show and accounts for much of its extraordinary success.

The other principal character is Tracy’s mom, Edna, a double-double-plus-sized woman with issues of her own and a character as formidable as her size. Edna backs up her daughter and shares in the triumphal denouement. Edna is traditionally played by a man in drag.

Other interesting characters have self-descriptive names, such as Velma Van Tussle and Motormouth Maybelle. Wilbur Turnblad, a self-effacing man who’s married to Edna, has his own great scene with his supersized darling.

Dealing with hot-button issues of self-esteem, racial discrimination and fair play, “Hairspray” delivers an emotionally moving vicarious ride that resonates deeply with the theater-going public. Based on the Broadway success, “Hairspray” has been re-created as a big-budget Hollywood musical movie co-starring John Travolta as Edna Turnblad.

Portland Ovations presents “Hairspray” at 8 p.m. Jan. 28-29 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Portland Symphony Orchestra

If your New Year’s resolutions include embracing new musical experiences, then Portland Symphony Orchestra maestro Robert Moody has programmed a perfect example for his first concert of 2010.

“Head and Heart” is the overall title of the concert and the featured new piece is a multimedia exploration of a composer’s frightening bout with a stroke that partially paralyzed him and a musical journey through his subsequent recovery.

“Headcase” is the musical depiction of the trials and torments endured by composer Brett Dietz after suffering from a blood clot in the brain. In Dietz’s own words:

“The libretto of ‘Headcase’ comes from a journal that I kept in 2002. In June of that year, at the age of 29, I had a stroke. I was completely mute and suffering from some paralysis when admitted to the hospital. The doctors told my family that there was very little hope for a complete recovery. For whatever reason, be it a miracle or my brain’s ability to heal itself, I was able to recover most of my normal functions.

“During my recovery I experienced many things such as dyslexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bouts of what I believed to be schizophrenia, insomnia, and an eerie ability to remember long-forgotten childhood events. These problems were probably caused by the location of the clot in my left frontal lobe. This area of the brain is our emotional and expressive core. It was a completely terrifying experience that lasted around two months. My neurologist told me to write a book about my experience; but, being a composer, I decided to write a piece of music instead.”

It was written in 2006 and first performed by the Pittsburg New Music Ensemble. The PSO advises that “Headcase” includes “potentially disturbing language and imagery and may not be suitable for younger audiences.”

Two more conventional pieces round out Sunday’s program. Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess” originated in 1899 as an exquisite lament for solo piano that was written while the composer studied in Paris. Its unexpected success – sheet music sales provided the bellwether index of that period – helped launch his career long and celebrated career. In 1910 Ravel orchestrated his now-famous “Pavane,” and it has become one of the most frequently performed works in classical music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 is a youthful exploration of new musical ideas that he was encountering after arriving in Vienna at age 17. Mozart only composed two symphonies in a minor key. No. 25 is the first such venture, and it reveals a depth of emotion that was seldom repeated during the composer’s brilliant subsequent career. The PSO’s Mark Rohr marvels that “it is astonishing that this level of expressiveness and technical mastery might have come from the pen of a teenager.”

Portland Symphony Orchestra presents “Head and Heart” at 2:30 p.m. January 24 at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Sidebar Elements

A teenager with a big bouff and a passion for dancing is the central character of “Hairspray,” a hugely popular Broadway show that’s coming to Merrill Auditorium in Portland thanks to Portland Ovations.