Leave it to Pit & Balcony Community Theatre to begin each new season with a cutting-edge musical production of grand proportions; and this year with their spectacular kick-off production of the Broadway musical Hairspray, the stage is being set for one of their most ambitious musicals to date.
With a remarkable cast of 33 actors, dancers, and singers all poised to tell this tale of teenage life in Baltimore back in the days of 1962 – two years before The Beatles landed upon our shores and the Civil Rights movement fired up; and back when any deviation from the ‘Norm’ in society relegated one to the category of ‘outcast’ or ‘misfit’, Hairspray is based upon the 1968 film written & directed by the notorious John Waters (arguably the Dean of Misfits) with songs & music prompted by the weekly TV dance programs popularized by the likes of Dick Clark that revolutionized America in the early sixties by bringing kids of all shapes, sizes, and color together through the music that was transforming the landscape.
Taking place in Waters’ hometown of Baltimore, the story-line follows plump teenager Tracy Turnblad’s dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show. When Tracy wins a role on the show she becomes a celebrity overnight and meets a colorful array of characters, using her newfound notoriety to integrate the show.
The musical’s original Broadway production opened in 2002 and won eight Tony Awards in 2003 along with 13 nominations. It also represents the notorious filmmaker, author, raconteur, and celebrated filmmaker John Waters most commercially successful project to date. Along with Andy Warhol, Waters largely defined the underground movement of the 1960s & ‘70s with works like Pink Flamingos, which brought us Divine - the most endearing and outrageous cross-dressing star ever; and also cast Patty Hearst in one of his films – so obviously, Waters is truly an expert when it comes to articulating the plight of the tormented and misunderstood.
Under the direction of Tommy Wedge, who also directed such landmark productions as Spring Awakening and Clybourne Park at Pit & Balcony, everything about this upcoming production is ambitious. Choreography is being split between Wedge and Candy Kotze, who handles the high-energy dance numbers; and Sara Taylor is handling musical direction, rounding out a strong creative team.
“It’s been tough,” admits Wedge. “We held auditions back in May and did a couple different choreography rehearsals in June and started rehearsing three times per week back in July, because the show involves one dance number after another. But people who saw the movie will know what’s going on in the play.”
“Jack O’Brien from Saginaw won a Tony Award for directing the Broadway musical, which forges another connection to the community,” adds Wedge. “The film came out in 1988 and 2002 saw the Broadway musical; and then O’Brien was asked to direct the film version; so its gone from John Waters movie to musical and then to a movie musical, but the 2007 version is pretty faithful to the version we’re staging here at P&B.”
“What really attracts me to this production is that Baltimore in 1962 and Baltimore today still possess a similar racial tension that is still present; and Saginaw kind of parallels that as well,” reflects Tommy.
“Waters’ movie and the musical both talk about race and gender and size – all the things that separate and segregate people – and how they all come together through music. So basically, there’s a couple things going on here. On the one hand we have a big Broadway dance musical and on the other, there’s some very political messages about the things that divide us, which is a powerful combination.”
An amazing number of 70 actors showed up for auditions in Hairspray and Wedge says the theatre seats 280 people. “I was dead-set on a cast of 40, but had to combine roles and make things a bit smaller because of the size of the theatre,” he explains. “We have a very fantastic ensemble with a very eclectic group of singers, dancers, and actors.”
For this production Tommy says his biggest directorial challenge has involved issues of blocking and getting people in the same spot at one precise time. “This is a tremendously dance-heavy show and many of the actors are not accustomed to that level of intensity in terms of learning all this music and choreography,” he relates. “Plus it’s a challenge for people balancing schedules with work and life over the course of such a long rehearsal period; but the show is blocked, we’re working it now, and have sold almost 600 seats, which is 1/3 of the collective house for the entire run, so we’re all pretty excited about it.”
For Wedge there are many elements involved that distinguish Hairspray as a unique & innovative musical in the lexicon of American theatre. “What’s nice is it’s a family musical and one of those where you can bring the entire family to enjoy, because each age group gets something different from it. It’s not like seeing Willie Wonka or Wizard of Oz and reminds me of Shrek a little bit, because a few of the jokes for adults fly over the heads of kids; but with a beautiful assortment of dance and music geared towards the teenage set, it’s modeled around American Bandstand – in a sense from Dick Clark to Ryan Seacrest – a ritualistic thing that drew the whole country together. It’s a nice nod to that period of time when we had that sense of community.”
Jenny Cohen is a double music & theatre major out of Midland performing the lead role Tracy Turnblad; with Chad Baker handling the difficult duty of playing the female role of Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad (the role performed by Divine in Water’s original film). The role of Motormouth Maybelle is deftly handled by professional jazz singer Shirleen Brown, with Janelle Bublitz portraying Penny Pingleton and SVSU Theatre major Donte Ashton Green playing Seawood Stubbs.
Collectively, this cast echoes the praises of a musical that deftly explores the process of moving from societal dissonance to acceptance in terms of being cast as a ‘misfit’.
“Obviously, the biggest challenge for me is playing the part of a woman dressed in drag, especially following the arc that the character of Edna has in the show,” reflects Chad Baker. “She starts out not confident because she is fat and is defeated by not living the life she wants, but transforms into this confident sassy person. It’s interesting just playing a character that does that type of transformation, but adding the element of being a woman on top of it is a whole other thing!”
Meanwhile, Jenny Cohen has a slightly different take on the message of Hairspray. “Whether you’re a boy or a girl or whoever you are, each of these characters has something holding them back that they don’t feel comfortable about. For the character of Tracy, it’s her weight that holds her back from fitting in, coupled with her big personality and unrealistic views for the time.”
“I agree with Jenny bout how personal insecurity is a big part of Hairspray,” echoes Donte Green. “My character of Seaweed is confident and sexy and has a lot of appeal and spunk, but in real life I might not be as confident as that, so I think it’s getting that confidence he has and owning the stage that is important. Plus the whole segregation thing. I wasn’t alive in the 1960s so don’t know how hard it could have been, but the notion of somebody telling you that you can’t dance with a certain crowd because of your color is a big thing for me. I’m trying to take what segregation means to me personally and make that believable to the audience – how the world actually was back in 1962”
In many ways, the superficial physical differences between these characters evaporate through the commonality of their passion shared for dance and music, so within that vein, what do the cast members hope audiences take away from this production?
“When you first sit down and watch the show you expect a fun, airy, tight, happy musical, which it is; but what we want to do is keep it funky but light while hitting on what the show is really about – the segregation – the misfits – and how they fit in,” reflects Jenny. “There’s all these different and important aspects of the show that I want to make believable, so people leave not excited about the fun happy music, but with the sense they actually might have learned something and felt something about this period – the sadness and excitement felt when we’re all integrated together.”
“When we started rehearsing, we had a Black Ensemble and a white Ensemble, “ explains Janelle. “ So in many ways, we had to get over the issue of race within the cast and had to get to know each other more, then practice together, which showed us on a personal level how connections are made with one another. We want to build the show up to that same level of connection.”
“It’s really about accepting yourself first,” interjects Chad. “Each individual character owns something about themselves they are struggling to accept; and once you do accept differences of other people, you accept them personally. Tracy & Edna are already bigger people and feel different, so when they meet the Black characters, they don’t really see any difference – they all share the notion of being an outcast; but don’t think of it that way. They are who they are because of their differences, and realize how amazing they are because of that.”
“I agree with Chad about the whole acceptance thing,” concludes Chat.
“A lot of people say racism is gone and no more, but it still exists from Whites to Blacks and vice versa. The biggest thing I want the audience to get from this show is that people are people – big, small, black, white – we’re all the same on the inside. It’s a good message.”
Pit & Balcony’s production of ‘Hairspray’ runs from October 2-4 and October 9-11. Tickets can be purchased by phoning 989-754-6587 or going to www.PitAndBalcony.com
16th November, 2023