Put on your dancing shoes and get ready to be welcomed to the 60s as Chillicothe High School presents the smash-hit musical comedy Hairspray on May 12th and 13th in the CHS/CMS auditorium. Hairspray, based on the 1988 sleeper hit film by John Waters, tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a pleasantly-plump teenager living in Baltimore in 1962. Tracy’s biggest dream is to dance on The Corny Collins show, a dance show on local television station WZZT. Tracy is told time and time again that her size will disqualify her from anyone ever wanting to see her dance on television, but through sheer perseverance and charm she makes it. However, once she succeeds she finds that fairness for herself isn’t enough...she wants the local African-American kids to be able to dance with her on the show as well. So, with the help of her parents, her best friend, her new boyfriend, and the host of Corny Collins’ “Negro Day”, Tracy sets out on a mission to fully integrate the show, much to the horror of its conservative producers.
“Hairspray is more important today than it ever has been, I think,” says Co-Director Geoffrey Smith, “with movements like #blacklivesmatter starting tough conversations and body shaming happening online as well as in person, we need stories like this to remind us that we are all human beings.” Smith continues by saying, “Hairspray gave us a chance to do a show that everyone loves, while allowing us to be relevant to the times and capitalizing on the tremendous student diversity we have at CHS.” Smith of course is referring to how the casting of Hairspray necessitates the casting of Caucasian and African-American lead characters, something that many believed would be a challenge.
“Students in the department would keep asking, ‘Are we really going to be able to cast this show?’ and I understood where they coming from,” says Smith, “Traditionally, CHS has chosen shows with mostly white original casts. Grease, Legally Blonde, Guys and Dolls, and The Little Mermaid to name a few. However, we also have a history of casting outside of the usual color boundaries for a show because the diversity of CHS is such that we have several non-white students in our theater department. That encouraged Mrs. Kennard and myself to choose a show where it wouldn’t just be a nice gesture toward color-blindness, it would actually be required of us.” The response to the auditions for Hairspray was tremendous, Smith says, “and so many students outside of our usual crew came in to try out.” Smith and Kennard filled the roles with ease, thus addressing the first challenge of the show.
The second challenge in producing the show was one where Mala Kennard, the show’s co-director, musical director, and choreographer, felt more comfortable: the difficulty of the music.
“This was the most difficult musical I've taught because every song had backup vocals that were from three to five vocal parts,” says Kennard. Kennard goes on to explain what about Hairspray was so difficult for a high school production: “The music is written in difficult keys and the chords that the cast sings are very sophisticated for a musical. Traditionally, you see traditional three part vocal parts that my choir students sing all of the time. For Hairspray, the chords are jazz and atonal (weird sounding) chords that we had to learn.” This is probably something that most viewers don’t realize and is one of the things that makes Hairspray’s music feel so full and rich. “When watching the movie or seeing the stage production, the difficulty is very deceiving,” says Kennard, “You think about the iconic songs from the show and the melody lines are pretty easy. It's when watching for a purpose -- really LISTENING to the backup music that you realize that it's going to take a choir the size of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to sing this show!” However, largely due to the fantastic musical training the students receive at CHS, the cast was able to overcome the struggles with the rich and intricate score with only a handful of cuts to help with their workload. “I'm proud of our students for taking on this challenge and meeting it,” Kennard says, “There were very few areas where I had to limit or cut vocal parts simply because our students couldn't sing them.”
The third and final challenge the production team of Hairspray faced was also one of it’s story’s biggest components, the dancing. “You know going into Hairspray that you are going to have to stage some big dance numbers, like You Can’t Stop the Beat and The Nicest Kids in Town,” says Smith, “But it’s when you are planning out a weekly schedule of staging and choreography that you realize that every scene has an up-tempo song in it, sometimes two, and all of them will require some kind of dance or rhythmic movement.” Smith and Kennard realized that both of them would need to take on choreography duties this year, with Smith taking the songs that were more movement centered and Kennard taking the heavy dance numbers. The pair would also need to bring in a ringer, “Luckily, I had a former Cavalite/Musical dance captain in Rylee Lewis, Class of 2016, who served as a co-choreographer for this production,” Kennard says, “She's been wonderful to work with and the cast loves her!” Smith was fairly dubious about taking on so much musical staging after having to only focus on the dramatic staging of the shows for so long. “I was terrified, to be frank,” Smith says with a laugh, “I can learn choreography, but I have never tried to teach it. My first day was Welcome to the 60s, which features a lot of Supremes-style girl-group dancing and it was tough getting it from the video I used as a reference, into a notes form, and then out of my head. The kids really enjoyed it though and they took to the sessions eagerly.” Kennard had a different reaction, however. “Yeah! I love that period of dance where you can do steps such as the Twist, Pony, Go Go, and the cast has enjoyed them as well, so it didn't feel like a lot of work,” she says.
Speaking of that fabulous cast, once again the cast of Hairspray includes both veterans and newcomers to the CHS stage, all of which are working harder than they ever have to bring this toe-tapping show to life. No one deserves recognition more than sophomore Kyrsten Oyer, who has taken on the role of Tracy Turnblad with gusto and real passion, despite often feeling tugged in several directions at once during the process. “Kyrsten,” says Kennard, “must have felt like a bouncing ball since all of the directors needed her at the same time. She's in every scene or number except for one or two in the show.” Oyer never lets the stress show, however, as she went into the first week of run throughs with a smile on her face and the script nowhere in sight. Along side of Oyer’s Tracy are Joey White as heartthrob Link Larkin, Annemarie Brier as Penny Pingleton, Keenah Copley-McKnight as Seaweed, and Kachina McKnight as Motormouth Maybelle. “Everyone of those lead actors immediately took the script and ran with it,” Smith says, “Joey has shown great leadership with the Corny Collins Council boys, Annemarie has embraced her inner comedian, and Keenah is even better than he was as Sebastian in last year’s The Little Mermaid.” Special mention should be made for Kachina McKnight who was recently accepted into AMDA, the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. “She plays Maybelle in a different way than what you might expect,” says Smith, “A lot of actresses often sound very rough and growly, but Kachina has a soft touch that brings out the mother in Maybelle.” Not to be missed is newcomer Victoria Brown, who shows off her incredible singing and dancing skills as Little Inez, Maybelle’s irrepressible daughter. “Everytime she sings, it’s like ‘wow’!” Says Smith.
Taking on the roles of the villains are veterans Kaylyn Hurles as Velma Von Tussle and Emily Schafer as her daughter, Amber. You might never guess that both actresses were chosen as understudies for the original students chosen for the roles. “Kaylyn has this natural sharpness to her that just works for Velma,” says Smith smiling, “You can imagine her as a former beauty queen and also as a taskmaster running a studio. She hits her funny lines every time and does it with a gleam in her eye.” Schafer also embraces her inner mean girl as Amber, who actively campaigns against Tracy during the plot of the show. “Emily and Kaylyn have both done amazing work, coming in late in the game as they did,” Says Smith, “Sometimes in the theater things happen, preventing those originally placed in roles from being able to take on the workload placed on them. This is really an example of how much talent we have at CHS. That we could fill both roles again with girls well suited to the parts is not something you could say of every school.”
Stealing select scenes of the show, however, is the duo of Seth Truman and Dylan Magill who play Tracy’s larger-than-life parents Edna and Wilbur Turnblad. “Those boys are hilarious together,” says Smith, unable to hold back a chuckle, “They never held back in finding the comedy in this romance between Edna and Wilbur, and they also looked at it like Shakespearean actors did in the past. They just accepted that whenever the scene is happening, Seth is a woman.” Having a man play the part of Edna dates back to the original John Waters film where Edna was played by Waters’ oldest and dearest friend, Divine - a drag performer who had appeared in several of his previous films (and on whom the animated Ursula from The Little Mermaid is based). When Hairspray hit the stage Edna was again played by a man in order to pay tribute to the late Divine, this time by Harvey Fierstein (Mrs. Doubtfire). Finally, Edna hit the big screen again in 2007, this time to be played by John Travolta. “Having Edna played by a male actor was something Mala and I wanted to preserve,” says Smith, “Mainly because it is one of the comic highlights of this off beat show. However, I also get a big kick out of the fact that the audience, after getting over the initial shock and delight of seeing a man in drag as the mother, eventually stops seeing the man and just sees the mother and wife in the story. There is never a soul in the audience who isn’t cheering on the steadfast love of Edna and Wilbur by the end of (You’re) Timeless to Me, despite appearances, and I felt that that aspect of the show, along with the need for diversity in the cast, was so very important to the overall message of Hairspray...we are all human and all deserving of love, no matter what we look like.”
Hairspray will be performed on May 12th and 13th at 7pm in the CHS/CMS auditorium. Tickets are $8.45 for adults and $5.45 for students and can be bought at the door on the nights of the show or online at www.showtix4u.com. Seating is general admission and unassigned for this show, so if you want your favorite seat, be sure to get there when the auditorium doors open at 6:30pm. The show is rated PG, just like the movie, for some innuendo and minor language.