Welcome to the ‘60s, where the nicest kids in town are about to boogie to a changing beat.
“Hairspray,” the musical theater version of John Waters’ cult classic film, is bouncing to the Theatre Cedar Rapids main stage July 6 to 28. This tale of discrimination and integration is wrapped around the changing face of popular music in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, when rhythm & blues rolled into rock.
It’s all a giant metaphor teased and sprayed into place by a bunch of dancing teenagers from both sides of the racial divide; a dreamy dance show hunk; his adoring chubby fan/dancer, her recluse mother and jokester father; the show’s producer, a sniping former beauty queen who plants her daughter in the spotlight; along with various other dreamers living large and small in Baltimore.
It’s 1962, and taunted teen Tracy Turnblad wants nothing more than to dance on “The Corny Collins Show,” a kissing cousin to “American Bandstand.” Her chances are slim because she is not. The plus-size girl’s positive attitude, however, lands her on the show, much to the producer’s chagrin.
Emma Drtina of Marion, who turns 23 today, is bubbling over with excitement at landing the leading role.
“I’ve been freaking out about it since they announced (the show),” she says before taking the stage for a recent rehearsal. “It goes a lot deeper than what I thought it was originally. She starts off in this naive world of living with just white people. She doesn’t understand there is a problem, then she just gets stuck into being alone. She doesn’t really fit in with the white kids, then she goes in with the black kids and doesn’t necessarily feel welcome there, either.”
What you need to know
- The musical “Hairspray” runs from July 6 to July 28 at Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
- Thursday, Friday and Saturday shows are at 7:30 p.m., Sunday performances are at 2:30 p.m.
- Cost is $25 and $30 adults, $20 youths and students;
- For more call (319) 366-8591, visit Theatrecr.org or go here to see more event details.
Read a REVIEW of opening night.
Once she’s on the show, Tracy’s next crusade is to help the segregated black dancers twist their way onto the show more than just one day a week, busting their moves among the white kids.
“She tries to work herself into both races, and it ends up bringing them all together, because she breaks the barrier,” Drtina says.
“The most interesting part of (the show), is that it comes off as just the lightest thing you’d ever want to see,” says director Leslie Charipar, 45, of Cedar Rapids. “But the whole story is about integration, so the notion that there’s a message in this madness — you almost don’t even know it until you walk out the door and think about it, because it’s so much fun. It’s so very funny. The characters are outrageous, but the story is pretty serious, about a time when certain kids couldn’t dance on a television show.”
Video – Behind the scenes for “Hairspray”
By the following year, their teenage innocence would be shattered by the murders of President Kennedy, Medgar Evers and four little girls in a Birmingham, Ala., Baptist church. In the midst of the escalating violence, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963.
“This play is set in the moment before everything in this country went crazy,” Charipar says.
Waters based his outrageous 1988 movie on his own experience longing for the chance to dance on Baltimore’s “Buddy Deane Show,” which ran from 1957 to 1964. Like his heroine, Waters got to dance on the show, but when the producers wanted to integrate the dancers, the kids said yes, the parents said no, and most importantly, the sponsor said no, so the show was canceled.
With “Hairspray,” Waters got to rewrite history and “tell the happy ending, instead,” Charipar says. His movie was adapted for the stage, peppered with splashy dance numbers, big wigs and musical styles true to the era.
The most famous quirk that’s carried over from the movie to the play is having a man play Tracy’s mother, Edna. Waters’ drag queen friend Divine starred in the 1988 movie, followed by gravelly voiced Harvey Fierstein on Broadway in 2002 and John Travolta on-screen in 2007.
“There’s no rhyme or reason for casting a guy as Edna,” Charipar says. “The script doesn’t even call for that. It’s sort of an unspoken tradition among people and theaters who do the show, that they cast Edna as a man. John Waters never said it had to be, the people who wrote the musical never said it had to be, so it’s just the thing that people do.”
She says it works, on several levels.
“The whole notion of ‘Hairspray’ seems like the underdog, being different and not fitting in,” she says. “You have this iconic beauty queen image with Velma, who is played by a woman. But you’ve got Edna, who had hopes and dreams and aspirations, and she tabled them to raise a family.”
She keeps to herself, doing laundry for others, and hasn’t left her home in years.
“That whole idea that she doesn’t want to go outside, she doesn’t like the way she looks, she feels different from everybody else — certainly a man actor playing a woman can relate to that sense of discomfort,” Charipar says. “You could argue that it gives (the show) a certain level of discomfort if you have a man play that role. It doesn’t feel exactly right. I think that’s part of the subtext of this show, that things don’t feel exactly right until the end of the play. It’s people trying to find their place in the world.”
Michael Holmes, 36, of Cedar Rapids, who has been involved with the community theater for about 25 years, is stepping into Edna’s sensible shoes for this production. This isn’t his first gender-bending role at TCR, having glammed it up for two outings of “The Rocky Horror Show” and “La Cage Aux Folles.”
This time, he’s shaved his legs from the knees down and will do some judicious waxing to hide his eyebrows, even though Edna’s look is far from polished. He’ll also be wearing lots of padding, including an “I” cup bra, which he says may be whittled down a bit before opening night. By the end of the show, he’ll be dancing backward, in high heels.
He hopes as the action unfolds, the audience will forget that he’s a man in muumuus.
“I’m trying to play her as true as you can,” he says. “I think everybody knows one of those ladies who has gone through some rough patches. She’s got some battle scars. I think of her as starting out as a lovely girl, and then as time goes on, you gain a few pounds here, a few pounds there, it’s 20 years later and she can’t find her waist. She has just kind of given up.”
“Let’s just say she’s a handful,” TCR newcomer Mark Baumann, 55, of Marion, says with a laugh. He plays Edna’s husband, Wilbur Turnblad, owner of a joke shop. “Of course, we haven’t figured out how big the handful is yet.”
— Diana Nollen