On Stage: Hairspray returns to Philadelphia

By Denny Dyroff, Entertainment Editor, The Times


It’s been more than a decade since “Hairspray” went on a National Tour and played a run in Philadelphia. The show, which is filled with fun numbers and poignant messages, is a delight that shouldn’t be missed.

Now through May 22, the Kimmel Cultural Campus (250 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, www.kimmelculturalcampus.org) is presenting the National Tour of “Hairspray” at the Miller Theater (formerly the Merriam Theater).

The show’s 20th Anniversary is this year, and this is the first time “Hairspray” has toured since 2009. The show’s messages of inclusivity are as timely and relevant as ever, whether it be about self-acceptance and body positivity or the resonance with the experiences of people of color today.

“Hairspray” started out many years ago as a John Waters movie – a typically off-beat Waters piece that eventually became a cult favorite.

Set in 1962 in Baltimore, Maryland (Waters’ hometown), the production follows teenage Tracy Turnblad’s dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance program based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show.

When Turnblad wins a role on the show, she becomes a celebrity overnight, leading to social change as she campaigns for the show’s integration.

In 2002, the musical version of “Hairspray” made its debut at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre. Two months later, it opened on Broadway to rave reviews and went on to win eight 2003 Tony Awards – including “Best Musical.” It ran for 2,642 performances and closed on January 4, 2009.

“Hairspray” has also had national tours, a West End production, and numerous foreign productions. It was also adapted as a 2007 musical film. The London production was nominated for a record-setting eleven Laurence Olivier Awards, winning four, including “Best New Musical.”

The show is a lavish production with great singing, sparkling dance routines, top-notch acting and colorful sets and costumes. It is also a thought-provoking story that is set in the early 1960s and deals with prejudices against blacks and fat people.

The story has a lot of messages – especially about discrimination and desegregation. But it’s not a heavy show – it’s a feel-good show. The main thing is that people have a good time when they come to this show.

Turnblad, an overweight teenager with all the right moves, is obsessed with the Corny Collins Show. Every day after school, she and her best friend Penny run home to watch the show and drool over the hot Link Larkin, much to Tracy’s mother Edna’s dismay.

After one of the stars of the show leaves, Corny Collins holds auditions to see who the next person on the Corny Collins show will be. With all of the help of her friend Seaweed, Tracy makes it on the show, angering the evil dance queen Amber Von Tussle and her mother Velma.

Tracy then decides that it’s not fair that the black kids can only dance on the Corny Collins Show once a month. With the help of Seaweed, Link, Penny, Motormouth Maybelle, her father and Edna, Turnblad sets out to integrate the show.

The cast will be led by Andrew Levitt a.k.a. Nina West (from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”) as Edna Turnblad, Niki Metcalf as Tracy Turnblad and Sandie Lee as Motormouth Maybelle.  Joining them are Billy Dawson as Corny Collins, Will Savarese as Link Larkin, Emery Henderson as Penny Pingleton, Jamonté D. Bruten as Seaweed J. Stubbs, Kaelee Albritton as Amber Von Tussle and Addison Garner as Velma Von Tussle.

In a show filled with upbeat high school kids and open-minded parents, the show’s “bad guys” are the Von Tussles – especially the mom, Velma Von Tussle.

The villainess of Hairspray is Velma Von Tussle — Amber Von Tussle’s scheming mother and producer of The Corny Collins Show, who pushes her daughter to seek the stardom that she never had.

“Velma is always true to her beliefs and her upbringing – pageants and the South,” said Garner, during a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “She always sticks to her character.”

Garner has a real insight into the role.

“It was very relatable for me,” said Garner. “I was a Southern Belle.

“I grew up in Opelika, Alabama. I was always involved in arts, piano and ballet. When I was in sixth grade, I played Annie in a community theater production. When I did ‘Annie,’ I caught the acting bug.”

Gardner pursued theater throughout grade school and high school and then was Bachelor of Fine Arts major at the University of Mobile.

“When I said I was a Southern Belle, I meant it,” said Gardner. “I was a Southern Belle in every shape and form.

“I competed in a lot of pageants including the Miss Alabama pageant which is part of Miss America. I was in the Top 10 at the Miss Alabama pageant in 2012.”

When Gardner auditioned for the National Tour of “Hairspray,” she already had a leg up on the competition.

“I played Velma Von Tussle on a cruise ship,” said Gardner. “It was on the Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas. It was the inaugural take-out cast and we did it for 10 months.

“When they were auditioning for the National Tour of ‘Hairspray,’ the casting was done by Stewart/Whitely Casting. It was the same people who cast me for the role on the cruise ship.”

Gardner definitely has an affinity for “Hairspray.”

“I like ‘Hairspray’ because it’s a story about the underdog,” said Gardner, who in real life is just a few years older than the actress playing her daughter.

“Tracy is not afraid to be herself in spite of so much rejection. Tracy is someone who defies all the odds.

“Audiences really love the show. I’ve been in theater for a long time, and this is the first show I’ve been in where the audience is on their feet at the end of the night very night.”

The National Tour has a very strong cast. Christopher Swan plays Wilbur Turnblad and Kaléa Leverette plays Little Inez with Caroline Daye Attayek, Kelly Barberito, Helene Britany, Jamonté Bruten, Tanner Callicutt, Shante Clarke, Ryahn Evers, Carly Haig, Michael Harmon, Michael Corey Hassel, Kaleb Jenkins, Greg Kalafatas, Gabriel Kearns, Stevie LeWarne, Jr., Nichelle Lewis, Brendan Morris, Faith Northcutt, Adam Blake Raque, Nadia Ra’Shaun, Renée Reid, Micah Sauvageau, Gabriyel Thomas and Emmanuelle Zeesman as members of the ensemble.

Video link for “Hairspray” — https://youtu.be/1wO6h8AuOks.

This new touring production reunites Broadway’s award-winning creative team, led by Director Jack O’Brien and Choreographer Jerry Mitchell.

“Hairspray” will run through May 22 at the Miller Theater. Ticket prices start at $39.

On May 19, the Candlelight Theater (2208 Millers Road, Arden, Delaware, www.candlelighttheatredelaware.org) is presenting the May edition of its monthly Candlelight Comedy Club and it will have a Delaware County connection.

Pat House

The headliner is Pat House who graduated from Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield while the feature is Hannah Trav, who grew up in Delaware County and graduated from Temple Law School (as Hannah Travaglini). The emcee is Philadelphia-based Nicole Phoenix.

House is a nationally touring comedian based out of Philadelphia.

“I always loved comedy,” said House, during a phone interview Tuesday night during a break from his job as a bartender at Paxon Hollow Country Club in Media.

“I was always watching Comedy Central when I was in grade school and high school.

“When I was in college at Temple University, they had a once-a-month comedy show on campus. Once I saw comedians perform live on stage, I knew I had to try it.”

It didn’t take long for him to dip his toe in the water.

“My first open mic was October 13, 2004 at Laff House on South Street,” said House, who graduated from Cardinal O’Hara on 2003.

“It was about three or four minutes, and it went well. The second time I did an open mic went well too. Then from the third time to the 20th time, I bombed. After two successful ones, I went month to month without a good one.

“I just had simple jokes at that time – puns or little jokes – quick easy set up/punch line jokes.

“I went to open mics every week for years. I did networking. I learned what other open mic comedians were doing that worked.

“It was all about getting onstage as much as I could. For about three or four years, I was doing open mics at Laff House and Helium. After a couple years, I got bumped up to feature.

“I was getting more personal in my routines – talking about things instead of making up jokes. And I was getting better at reading crowds.”

House was successfully climbing the comedy ladder.

“My first headline gig was in 2013,” said House, who now has performed in more than 20 states.

“I headlined Helium and recorded my first album, ‘Biggest Thing,’ the same night. Now, I headline Helium every November.

“Before the pandemic, I was doing 250-300 shows a year – both headline and feature. This will be the fourth or fifth time I’ve played Candlelight.”

For House, everyday life seems to be a great source of material.

“My whole entire act is autobiographical,” said House, who majored in public relations at Temple.

House has worked the last 18 years as a bartender – which is sort of the ultimate public relations gig. It is also a great source of material.

Spending years bartending and interacting with strangers, he was constantly intrigued, amazed and extremely annoyed at the ridiculous things people say and do in public. With matter-of-fact delivery and sharp observations, His material is relatable to anyone tortured by the absurdity of others.

“It took me about 10 years to get good at reading a crowd,” said House, who released his latest album, “Heard Enough Yesterday,” in 2018. “Now I feel really confident and comfortable onstage.”

Video link for Pat House — https://youtu.be/-XeQR_IbYnE.

The Show at the Candlelight Theater on May 19 will start at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, which include complimentary snacks, iced tea, lemonade and coffee, are $30. There will be a full-service bar open throughout the show.

Proof of Vaccination or negative test required. Masks are required entering and exiting the theatre.

The Candlelight Theater is in the early stages of its third production run of 2022. “Clue On Stage” is running now through June 26.

“Clue: On Stage” is adapted from the Paramount Pictures film written by Jonathan Lynn and the board game from Hasbro, Inc. written by Sandy Rustin.

It’s a dark and stormy night, and you’ve been invited to a very unusual dinner party.

Each of the guests has an alias, the butler offers a variety of weapons, and the host is, well . . . dead. When their host turns up dead, they all become suspects. Led by Wadsworth the butler, Miss Scarlett, Professor Plum, Mrs. White, Mr. Green, Mrs. Peacock, and Colonel Mustard race to find the killer as the body count stacks up.

The play is a hilarious farce-meets-murder mystery that will leave both cult-fans and newcomers in stitches as they try to figure out…WHO did it, WHERE, and with WHAT!”

“Clue On Stage” is a madcap comedy that will keep audiences guessing until the final twist.

“Clue On Stage” is running now through June 26 at the Candlelight Theatre. Tickets, which include dinner, beverages and dessert, are $65.50 for adults and $33 for children (ages 4-12).

The arrival of COVID-19 and the accompanying pandemic lockdowns were a kick in the groin to bands and music clubs around the world.

Different music acts reacted in a variety of ways.

Some went into a hiatus of indeterminate length. Some – in climates warm enough – resorted to outdoor shows with social distancing. Some performed Livestream concerts to empty rooms to give their fans something to listen to and watch.

Many went into retreat status where they focused on writing, recording solo tracks or making collaborative recordings with others via Zoom. Others temporarily abandoned music and opted for other more conventional careers like plumbing, teaching via the internet or other arts such as painting or sculpting.

The North Country

The North Country, which will be headlining a show on May 19 at The Pharmacy (1300 South 18th Street, Philadelphia, www.thepharmacyphilly.org), opted to work on a new musical project – a project that would eventually become their brand-new EP, “Born at the Right Time (Exquisite Corpse).”

The EP is scheduled to be released on July 15 on Misra Records. All songs written, performed, and recorded by Austin Blanton, Andrew Grossman, Laurel Halsey, Jon Harmon, Kirk Kubicek, and Margot MacDonald.

“We made the record during the height of the lockdown,” said Grossman, during a phone interview Monday from his home in Washington, D.C.

“We recorded it remotely entirely using home gear. It was a way to stay busy.

“We started working on it at the end of 2020 and early in 2021. We got halfway through and thought we had something.”

2020 was going to be The North Country’s year. After the successful release of two singles, “Future Humans” and “Freaks,” sold out release shows in D.C. and New York and a tour to SXSW coming up, the band was gearing up to share their music and brimming with optimism. Then Covid struck.

The North Country has always been somewhat unconventional with its musical offerings.

Blending polyphonic psychedelia, classic American songwriting and soulful indie-rock compositions, The North Country is a band with a distinct message and broad appeal.

“I say that we’re an experimental pop collective rooted in indie rock,” said Grossman.

Unconventional and experimental are two good adjectives to describe “Born at the Right Time (Exquisite Corpse).”

The process was multi-layered.

Each member of the band would write and record a short piece of music then send it to one other person in the band. Then that person would work on it, adding to it for one week and then pass it along to one other person in the band.

The band set up a schedule using a 6×6 matrix of non-repeating numbers in rows and columns so that each piece of music was passed to a new person in the band, in a unique order, and each person sent to and received from someone new each week. Nobody heard the whole thing until the very end.

The rules were simple – “One or two ideas added per round. Ideas can be instrumental, structural, lyrical. Don’t be afraid to get weird.”

“We sent the files back-and-forth, and everyone wrote a small piece,” said Grossman. “Everyone contributed to every song. It was done in a unique way.”

“Exquisite corpse” (from the original French term “cadavre exquis”), is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in sequence, either by following a rule or by being allowed to see only the end of what the previous person contributed.

This technique was invented by Surrealists and is similar to an old parlor game called consequences in which players write in turn on a sheet of paper, fold it to conceal part of the writing, and then pass it to the next player for a further contribution.

The name is derived from a phrase that resulted when Surrealists first played the game, “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau.” (“The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.”).

“The whole thing was mastered in summer 2021,” said Grossman. “We were looking for a label to release it. We got a manager and he shopped it around. Misra Records was interested, and it was a label we knew and liked.”

The North Country has always been Grossman’s project.

“We’re based in D.C and have been around for more than 10 years,” said Grossman. “Our first album was ‘You Can Never Go Home Again,’ in 2012. The current iteration of the band is about 4-5 years old.”

When asked about the evolution of the band’s music, Grossman replied, “It’s changed dramatically for the better. I think we’ve found what the band is supposed to be.”

Video link for The North Country — https://youtu.be/G4a29xX-K5U.

The show at The Pharmacy on May 19 will start at 7:30 p.m.

Another show at The Pharmacy this weekend will feature The Rogetones on May 20.

John van der Put is one of the most popular comedian/magicians in Las Vegas – but most people…even die-hard Vegas visitors…draw a blank when they hear his name.

Mention his stage name — Piff the Magic Dragon – and it’s a whole different story.

In 2008, van der Put created his stage persona of Piff the Magic Dragon, dressing in a green, red and yellow dragon costume, with self-deprecating humor and deadpan delivery. He is assisted by “Mr. Piffles,” a chihuahua in a dragon costume.

Piff the Magic Dragon

Now on tour, Piff the Magic Dragon has teamed up with world-renowned golden voice clown, Puddles Pity Party, for their “Misery Loves Company Tour.”

The “Misery Loves Company Tour” will visit 19 cities across the U.S. starting on May 17th in New Hampshire and concluding on November 6th in San Antonio. Two of the stops will be on May 20 at the Keswick Theater (291 N. Keswick Avenue, Glenside, 215-572-7650, www.keswicktheatre.com) and May 21 at the American Music Theatre (2425 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, www.AMTshows.com).

Piff the Magic Dragon will perform with his sidekick, Mr. Piffles (the world’s only magic performing chihuahua). Together, they have won several Best of Las Vegas awards for their long-standing show at the iconic Flamingo Hotel & Casino.

Piff the Magic Dragon blends comedy with magic to deliver “the right amount of wrong” while Puddles Pity Party’s voice has been compared to rock legends like Tom Jones and Freddie Mercury. The 7-foot sad clown has amassed nearly 900,000 YouTube subscribers and performed sold-out shows all over the world, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, London’s Sojo Theatre, and a residency at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Piff found his calling almost by accident.

“I used to play cards with my friends, and I tried to figure out ways to cheat,” said Piff, during as phone interview last week. “So, I used sleight of hand – which is similar to magic.

“After I got good at it, I would work restaurants – doing magic tricks around the table for tips. That led to me being an onstage performer.

“I’ve always done sleight of hand – and I always throw a couple jokes in there.”

It didn’t take long for Piff to move up to the professional level.

“I started off in comedy clubs – three-minute spots, five-minute spots and on up,” said Piff. “I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for eight years doing hour-long shows. That’s where I built up my act.

When Piff brought his comedy act to America, he quickly won over comedy legends Penn & Teller and the hard-to-impress crew of judges on America’s Got Talent.

Since breaking out on America’s Got Talent in 2015, Piff the Magic Dragon has established himself as a top-flight performer through his Vegas residency, network television appearances and non-stop touring. For the past seven years, Piff has headlined the iconic Flamingo Hotel and Casino in the heart of the Las Vegas strip, with over 250 shows a year in the Piff the Magic Dragon Theatre.

In 2020, Piff was crowned the winner of TBS’ Tournament of Laughs, triumphing over his heroes Jeff Ross, Natasha Leggero and Judah Friedlander. In 2019, he was voted one of Variety’s Top Ten Comics to Watch and scooped Best Comedian, Best Magician and Best Headliner at the Best of Las Vegas Awards.

Piff brought Mr. Piffles into his act with tricks such as shooting him out of a canon or guessing what box he’s in.

“Mr. Piffles is the original Mr. Piffles,” said Piff. “He was a rescue dog and he’s now been with me for 14 years. He’s still a very healthy dog.”

Video link for Piff the Magic Dragon – https://youtu.be/HybdQUCepFw.

The show on May 20 at the Keswick Theatre will start at 8 p.m. Ticket prices start at $35.

The show on May 21 at the American Music Theatre will start at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $29 and $39.

Other upcoming shows at the Keswick are 21 Duprees on May 21 and Marc Maron on May 22.

Another show this week at the AMT will be Jimmy Fortune on May 22.

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band will be the headliner at Fillmore Philadelphia (1100 Canal Street, Philadelphia, 215-309-0150, www.thefillmorephilly.com) on May 20 as part of a tour support for his new album, “Dance Songs for Hard Times.”

“Dance Songs for Hard Times,” which was produced by Vance Powell (Jack White, Chris Stapleton) debuted at #1 on the Billboard and iTunes Blues charts.

The two-time Blues Music Awards nominees are the greatest front-porch blues band in the world led by Reverend Peyton, who is considered to be the premier finger picker playing today.

Peyton has earned a reputation as both a singularly compelling performer and a persuasive evangelist for the rootsy country blues styles that captured his imagination early in life and inspired him and his band to make pilgrimages to Clarksdale, Mississippi to study under such blues masters as T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour and David “Honeyboy” Edwards.

“Dance Songs for Hard Times” conveys the hopes and fears of pandemic living. Current BMA nominee, Rev. Peyton, the Big Damn Band’s vocalist and world-class fingerstyle guitarist, details bleak financial challenges on the songs “Ways and Means” and “Dirty Hustlin’.” He pines for in-person reunions with loved ones on “No Tellin’ When,” and he pleads for celestial relief on the album-closing “Come Down Angels.”

Far from a depressing listen, “Dance Songs” lives up to its name by delivering action-packed riffs and rhythms across 11 songs. The country blues trio that won over crowds on more than one Warped Tour knows how to make an audience move.

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, a 2019 Blues Music Award nominee, is billed as “simply the greatest country-blues band in the world.”

“The challenge of making the blues is that it takes work,” said Peyton. “In terms of writing, the first thing you have to do is study – put in the time to see where this stuff comes from. Then, you have to write for yourself. It has to be personal.”

Peyton has been travelling his musical path for a long time.

“I’ve been playing music since I was 12,” said Peyton. “I played a lot of music and gave lessons. When I was 18, I was told by a doctor that I’d never be able to play again because I had issues with tendons in my hands.”

Doctors told Peyton that he would never be able to hold his left hand in fretting position again. At that point, he gave up on music.

“Two years later, I found a doctor who would operate,” said Peyton. “They had to cut away a bunch of scar tissue — in both hands. It was a miracle. Then, I met Breezy, and the rest is history.”

Not long after the surgery, he met Breezy, who is now his wife, and the couple’s whirlwind romance and shared love of music inspired him to pursue his potential. Breezy took up the washboard, and by 2006 the members of the Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band had sold their possessions and taken to the road.

“The timing was perfect,” said Peyton. “I was in a pretty dark place because I had played guitar since I was a kid. It’s who I was. When I met Breezy, my hands were still in bandages. Two weeks later, I was playing guitar again. Breezy believed in the music.

“I first started listening to anything — classic rock then blues guys like Johnny Winter. I wanted to know who they listened to and through that I discovered guys like Muddy Waters.

“When I first heard finger-style country blues, it blew my mind. I became obsessed. I went all the way back to Charlie Patton. I realized that this was the roots of it. Charlie’s stuff is so fun — so great to listen to. Country blues is the root of it. Muddy Water and Howlin’ Wolf wanted to be Charlie Patton. Rural blues lends itself to storytelling.”

Peyton not only listened to rural blues; he lived the life of an old rural bluesman.

“We’ve been doing this for a lot of years,” said Peyton. “The first few years, we were homeless and lived in a van. We never had a rich benefactor — never had a record label. Everything we ever did was because people saw it and realized it matters. I’m really proud of what we’ve done.

“It’s still possible to make blues music that is fresh. I want to make new music and keep this stuff going. With blues, you have to be yourself. I wanted to take country blues to a new level, and I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Video link for The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band — https://youtu.be/lG6XjaY7GSk.

The show at the Fillmore on May 20 will start at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $28 in advance and $30 day of show.

Kennett Flash (102 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Square, 484-732-8295, http://www.kennettflash.org) is hosting Kim Richey on May 20 and Corky Laing on May 22.

Jamey’s House of Music (32 South Lansdowne Avenue, Lansdowne, 215-477-9985, www.jameyshouseofmusic.com) will host Dave Coppa and Scrapple on May 20 and Kricket Comedy on May 21.

The Ardmore Music Hall (23 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-649-8389, www.ardmoremusic.com) will present Magical Mystery Doors on May 19, Exile on Main Street 50th Anniversary on May 20, Keith Murray on May 22, Dylan Birthday Bash on May 24, Anders Osborne on May 26 and Battles on May 26.

118 North (118 North Wayne Avenue, Wayne, www.118northwayne.com) will host Sun Rompe Pera on May 19, Wheatus on May 20, Almost There on May 21, Wally Smith’s Hammond Organ Trio on May 22, Danielia Cotton on May 22, AM Radio Tribute Band on May 25 and Cousin Curtis on May 26.

The Sellersville Theater (24 West Temple Avenue, Sellersville, 215-257-5808, www.st94.com) will present Popa Chubby on May 20, G.E. Smith & Simon Kirke on May 21 and The Gilmour Project on May 26.

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