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Posted June 4, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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'Hairspray': Popular production is first in SU summer season
By Josette Keelor -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah Conservatory can boast that it is ahead of the curve, offering its students and area residents something that most other theater companies cannot -- the rights to a famous, award-winning musical that is still on stage in New York and is currently touring nationally.
Marc Shaiman's "Hairspray," which won eight Tony awards for its original production on Broadway in 2002, will kick off the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre at Shenandoah University, answering the wishes of local theater-goers.
"For the last three years, 'Hairspray' has been No. 1 one for their choice," says Hal Herman, producing artistic director of Shenandoah Conservatory. "I think it's a really great show to do," he says. "Not too many people around have done the show."
Herman says the theater would have chosen to do the show earlier but was unable to get the rights to it until this year.
"It hasn't been released to too many places; we're one of the lucky few," he says.
"Hairspray," which takes place in 1962 Baltimore, tells the story of Tracy Tumblad, played by Kelly Kanter. Tracy is a teenager who dreams of dancing on "The Corny Collins Show," a TV show based on the real-life "Buddy Deane Show" of that time period. At first she is rejected because she is not a likely star, being short and overweight, but she wins the role after dancing for Corny Collins, played by Jack Donahue.
The plot speaks of determination, tolerance and fighting for one's beliefs.
"[Tracy] fights her way not only to get on the show but to get a boyfriend on the show," Herman says. She also encourages the producers to integrate the show.
Collins' show does not allow black and white dancers to perform on stage together. Each month the show holds "Negro Day" and invites blacks to perform. Tracy vies for all the performers to be permitted to dance on stage together.
"She believes that everyone has the right," Herman says.
Tracy's journey is not an easy one, and many characters block her way, such as Amber Von Tussle, who competes along with Tracy for the role of Miss Hairspray, and her mother, Velma Von Tussle, who will do just about anything to help her daughter succeed. Velma, producer of Collins' show, also does not want the dancers integrating and aims to block Tracy in her pursuit of equality, both for minorities as well as for performers who might not be as beautiful as the rest.
Luckily for Tracy, she finds an ally in Collins, who agrees that the show should be integrated.
"He's a character that in this time period is doing things that people were not really doing," Donahue says.
His character says, "I want the kids on this TV show to look like the kids who are watching."
"And I just love that," says Donahue. "It's strange and odd terrain that it's 40 years later."
The play is not all drama and social hardship, however.
"On top of this is a very fun show with a tremendous amount of dancing," Herman says. "[The play is] done with good taste and a lot of fun and you really empathize with the girl," Herman says. "And you root for Tracy to win."
"Hairspray" is also accentuated by some of the wacky characters. Like Tracy's mother, Edna Tumblad, played by Rick Wesley in drag.
"It's not my first time in drag on this stage," Wesley says, explaining that he dressed as a woman in "Show Girls," one of his 41 performances at Shenandoah.
"It's a tricky role," says Wesley, a former Shenandoah student. "It's easiest for me to say it's the role John Travolta played in the latest movie."
In filmmaker John Waters' 1988 film, the character was portrayed by the actor Divine.
"Why is the role in drag? It was all created from the mind of John Waters. It was all about John Waters casting Divine in the role. I think that it works with a man in the role."
"You have to tolerate that there's a man in that role," Wesley says.
"I think when you see the show, you just accept it from the beginning," says Rowles.
"So, I'm having a blast trying to figure out how to walk that line, but it's a comic role," Wesley says.
Robin Higgonbotham and Jack Rowles, also former Shenandoah students, have much experience at the theater. All, however, are on new ground with "Hairspray," both because it is a fairly new musical and because they are new to the types of roles they portray.
"It's my first role playing a mother of a teen," says Higgonbotham, who plays Velma. "I'm mean, I'm bigoted. I'm the villain. It's fun to be the bad guy."
Rowles, too, is gaining new footing in his role as Tracy's father, Wilbur Tumblad. "It's a blast because I have two small children and I'm an older dad, and I've never played a dad, and I've been rehearsing for this role for eight years," he says. His personal education has so far served him well for the background of the role. "Before having these children, I don't think I would have known."
"Hairspray" is the first of four musicals in the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre held at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre at Shenandoah University in Winchester. It begins June 10 and runs through June 21. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and Sundays at 7 p.m. Matinees are at 2:30 p.m. every Saturday and on June 17, at 2:30, though some performances are already sold out. For tickets or more information call the box office at 665-4569 or visit the Web at www.su.edu.
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