News Column

RRT's 'Hairspray' provides more than '60s pop

July 11, 2014

By Shea Conner, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.

July 11--Theater-goers generally think of "Hairspray: The Musical" as a showcase for sweet, sugary bubblegum pop with a '60s flair.

Robidoux Resident Theatre's production will treat the ears of the audience with that same gleefully catchy concoction, but it also will ask them to keep their eyes and minds open.

"The music is catchy and it's kitschy, but it all has such a deeper meaning," says director Jeremy Eaton. "And I love fishing and digging for those deeper-rooted issues that are masked by the happy."

Those who look through the musical's aerosol fog of fun tunes and colorful camp will discover a story about unlikely heroes trying to overcome the social injustices of 1960s America.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, "pleasantly plump" teenager Tracy Turnblad (Alex Richards) dreams of dancing on "The Corny Collins Show," a local TV dance program that features the dreamy Link Larkin (Jacob Kiefer). Tracy wins a role on the show and becomes a local celebrity overnight, much to the dismay of wicked producer Velma Von Tussle (Kathryn Hawley) and her rude daughter Amber (Phelps Hawley). While the Von Tussles pick on Tracy and make snide remarks about her weight, the sweet but naive teen also sees the discrimination that surrounds her. Black people aren't allowed to dance or even be seen on "The Corny Collins Show."

With the help of her mom (Edna, played by Sean Connors) and dad (Wilbur, played by James Skeffington), her geeky friend Penny (Katie Gregory), record shop owner and "Negro Day" host Motormouth Maybelle (Cynthia McCallon) and Maybelle's son Seaweed (Carl Stafford), Tracy seeks to integrate the TV show.

When writer and director John Waters created the 1988 film "Hairspray," which starred Ricki Lake as Tracy and drag superstar Divine as Edna, the racial charge could be felt through all the kitsch. It faded ever so slightly when the musical adaptation of "Hairspray" debuted on Broadway in 2002. Audiences and critics didn't seem to mind. The good vibes powered "Hairspray: The Musical" to huge box office success and eight Tony Awards the next year.

In 2007, the stage musical received a film treatment starring Nikki Blonsky as Tracy and John Travolta as Edna. This time around, the tale of prejudice was pushed a little further to the back burner.

Eaton and his cast, however, don't want to shy away from the warts-and-all approach. Whether it's the cruel reaction of a racist white mother to black children or the nasty words hurled at Tracy and her pals, they want the hatred to feel more realistic than ridiculous.

"The (2007) movie has a lot of glamour, but it doesn't get really deep. We get pretty deep," says McCallon, whose portrayal of Motormouth Maybelle will be her very first role in an on-stage musical.

Eaton actually dedicated large chunks of rehearsal dates to cast discussions about racism. During these talks, many cast members bared themselves and spoke about how racism had affected them. Others admitted that they felt somewhat uncomfortable spouting off such heinous lines. The conversations sometimes became intense and emotional.

"It was kind of a bit of a shock when we did our first discussion. But Jeremy was really, really good about making the environment a welcoming environment," says Richards, who also played Mrs. Lovett in Missouri Western's production of "Sweeney Todd." "The cast has been so good about educating each other."

RRT's production also will address body issues and character development in a more realistic light.

Speaking to that, Connors says it wasn't too much of a stretch for him to play the shy, overweight Edna. Being a larger guy, he has dealt with the fat jokes and mean remarks his whole life. He's simply trying to carve out his own character, which can be a tough task when following in the footsteps of Divine and John Travolta. He says that he's borrowing a few of their little quirks and working in some of his mom's colloquialisms as his take on Edna evolves.

"I don't think you'll see John Travolta or Divine, but you'll see some of their inspiration up there," Connors says.

"You don't even see Sean. You don't," McCallon adds. "You see a woman in her 40s. You see her struggles. You see her insecurities. That's who she is."

"I still have to shave my legs," Connors jokingly replies.

Genuine character development also has been a big focus for Richards. Some actresses and directors have envisioned Tracy Turnblad as a one-dimensional protagonist, one who's cheery, energetic and youthfully innocent from beginning to end. Richards wants to start there and lend the unlikely hero more and more vigor as the play unfolds.

"When you look at the story, she does go through a lot of hard things," Richards says. "She's finally realizing that the world isn't as bright and cheery as she thought it was."

"This Tracy -- she's not taking no stuff," McCallon adds. "She's powerful, and you see Tracy turn from a teenager into a woman. She takes some responsibility and says, 'I'm going to make a difference in the world.'"

Of course, Tracy's transformation will be set to some of the most infectious tunes to ever hit Broadway. Most of the music from "Hairspray" draws inspiration from the Motown era and Elvis Presley-style classics of the early 1960s. Richards likely will give the crowd a rush of enthusiasm with the upbeat opener "Good Morning Baltimore," and Kathryn Hawley will surprise some audience-goers with the high notes she hits in the delightfully villainous "Miss Baltimore Crabs." From "The Nicest Kids in Town" and "Welcome to the '60s" to the closing hit "You Can't Stop the Beat," "Hairspray" has no shortage of earworms.

But if you poll the cast, each member speaks highest of McCallon's performance of the soulful, stirring "I Know Where I've Been."

"I get chills every time I hear it," Connors says.

Chills and toe-tapping are exactly the kind of reactions that Eaton is aiming for with RRT's "Hairspray." He wants to surprise theater-goers, have some fun and, most importantly, immerse them in the realities of the decade. That's why his cast is largely made up of newcomers to RRT. That's why he brought on Amy Heath, owner of The Lucky Tiger vintage clothing store, to help outfit the cast. That's why he enlisted students at Vatterott College to specially design wigs for the play. That's why the set will draw inspiration from vintage records and the decor of the period.

That's also why he didn't want to lose the important social commentary in the midst of the happy-go-lucky tunes.

"We'll have a lot of fun, but we'll be enlightening, too," Eaton says.

"Hairspray: The Musical" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on July 18 and 19 and at 2 p.m. on July 20 at the Missouri Theater. For more information about "Hairspray" or to order tickets, call the Robidoux Resident Theatre office at 232-1778 or visit rrtstjoe.org.

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(c)2014 St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

Visit the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.) at www.newspressnow.com/index.html

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Source: St. Joseph News-Press (MO)


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