Hairspray opened at Storybook Theatre this weekend. It’s a 2002 musical with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. It’s based on the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray. It won Tony awards for best musical, book and score and was in turn was the basis for a second film in 2007.
The story is set in 1962 Baltimore. Tracy, a large teenage girl, aspires to get on The Corny Collins Show, a local dance show based on the real life Buddy Deane Show. Originally turned down because of her weight, she gets in by impressing Collins with some “Negro” dance moves she learns from the son of Motormouth Maybelle, who hosts “Negro Day” – the only day of the month when blacks are allowed on the show (segregated, of course). Tracy becomes a local celebrity and with Motormouth’s encouragement, leads the cause to get the show integrated.
Jolene Anderson plays Motormouth Maybelle in Storybook’s production. Earlier this week I had a chat with her to get her take on the show and her role. “I love the character of Maybelle,” says Jolene, “she’s positive and upbeat – very different from the other adults in the show. She teaches Tracy and her mother, who’s also an insecure larger woman, not to put themselves down just because they’re big. She really understands what integration means to her and her family and how big a chance they’re taking by trying to get on The Corny Collins Show, but she won’t back down – or let anyone else back down either.”
Jolene is a Calgary-born business major who’s been involved in acting and theatre for the last decade, since she returned from university in Saskatchewan. She’s done several shows with Storybook Theatre and joined the Storybook Board of Directors this year. “I chose Storybook because I’d heard good things about them before I got involved,” says Jolene. “They provide great opportunities for people who are not professionally trained. It took me a few auditions to get a part, so I spent most of my first few years backstage doing stage management, sets and props, which I think has made me a stronger actor”. Jolene says one of the things she likes about Storybook is the sense of community. “It’s like a family,” she says, “We support each other. There’s always someone there with more experience to give you a helping hand, and we learn to help others in return. Our production team puts so much of themselves into the show, it inspires all of us on stage to want to give everything we’ve got.”
Jolene says that the stage version of Hairspray is “electric from start to finish.” She points out that there are many songs that aren’t in the movie, and things you don’t expect to see even if you’ve seen the movie a hundred times. And with almost forty cast members, it’s a big show. “We’ve got two directors (Jamie Eastgard-Ross and JP Thibodeau), a musical director (Patrice Barnes) and three choreographers (Terra Plum, Katherine Burrowes and Lianne Smith),” she says. “We started by learning the music first, then interspersed it with choreography, then finally added lines and blocking. I’ve really enjoyed watching the characters grow through rehearsal, movement and choreography. And everything is BIG – big sets (designed by JP Thibodeau and built by Bill Brown), big costumes (by Magz Ross and Alex May), big makeup (by Cat Bentley and Kirstie Gallant), big lights (by JP Thibodeau and Gina Power), and of course, BIG HAIR (by Cat Bentley and Athena Guy)!” Jolene says that they’ve maintained the tradition of having Tracy’s mother played by a man, as Divine did in the original movie, and John Travolta did in the second. “Our Jeremy Walker does a fabulous Edna,” she adds.
Jolene thinks there’s something for everyone in Hairspray regardless of their age. “Those who were around then will remember the struggle for racial equality, while younger people may be able to relate to more contemporary struggles around religion or homosexuality,” she says. “And the issues of self-image and looks are still very prevalent in today’s culture. You could fast-forward that element of the story to 2013 and it’s just as relevant as it was when it was written.” Jolene says the key messages of Hairspray are about learning to be yourself and standing up for others, and that it asks the universal question: “why do we cut others out of the picture? She says that even if you’re not in it for the moral, you’ll love the early-60’s era music and dancing. As she says, ”I don’t see how anyone could not love this show.”
Hairspray runs until May 26 at The Community Arts Centre in Beddington. Tickets are $21-$24. For more information go to Storybook Theatre