Hey there, Baton Rouge! Don’t change the channel.
‘Cause it’s time for the Corny Collins Show, brought to you by Ultra-Clutch Hairspray.
Where every afternoon when the clock strikes 4, a bunch of crazy kids crashes through that door. And Tracy Turnblad dreams of being one of them.
“Them” being the nicest kids in town.
And will she?
Wait. Hold up. There’s a more important question here.
Yes, more important than Tracy’s fate, because when Hairspray is mentioned, the story’s fans immediately want to know who will play Edna.
That’s Tracy’s super-sized mom, a role that traditionally is played by a man.
There is no written code that Edna should be played by a man. And there are no guidelines as to how an actor should carry out the role.
Divine originated the role in director John Waters’ 1988 movie, Hairspray. Harvey Fierstein offered a brassy rendition of the character when the movie was adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
John Travolta’s Edna was sheltered, sweet spirited and a little na?ve in the 2007 film version of the musical. And that’s not forgetting later Broadway versions by actors Michael McKean, George Wendt and comedian Paul Vogt.
Now Lester Mut will deliver his rendition of Edna to Baton Rouge Little Theater’s production of Hairspray, beginning Friday, July 8.
It all begins with Tracy’s dream of winning a spot on the Corny Collins Show.
So, it’s lights, camera - action! - literally - when the curtain opens on the Main Stage.
“This is a television show within a play,” Keith Dixon said.
He’s the theater’s artistic director, as well as director of this show.
“So, we’re taking a few liberties with this,” he continued. “It’s not going to change the play in any way. We’re just adding our own twist when it comes to the TV show. But you’ll have to see the play to find out what that is.”
Suffice it to say that the surprise will place the audience in the middle of the action, most of which revolves around the Corny Collins Show.
Again, this is the show of which Tracy Turnblad so badly wants to be a part, sort of a Baltimore version of American Bandstand. That is, for those who remember American Bandstand. For those who don’t, well, imagine Dancing with the Stars with no stars and no competition. Just a show with the coolest teenagers doing the latest dances.
A show that airs every afternoon at 4 ? a show where the most popular of the coolest kids become the stars. The coolest of all being an Elvis-type heartthrob named Link Larkin. Link. Gosh, how Tracy loves him. And she dreams of him loving her.
But there’s a problem. Tracy is a large girl, a physical feature that could be considered an obstacle to landing a spot on the Corny Collins Show, even more so when plotting to win Link’s heart.
Think about it. Large girls just weren’t picked to dance on television. At least, not in 1962, when the show’s “Nicest Kids in Town” were all thought to be clear-skinned and white.
But that doesn’t stop Tracy. So, Edna can’t help but worry.
“The role of Edna isn’t a role that’s done in drag,” Mut said. “It’s clearly a role of a man playing a woman.”
In other words, it’s pretty clear that a man is playing Edna, a man awkwardly trying to be feminine, which only adds to Edna’s charm. Because whether na?ve or brassy, Hairspray audiences grow to love Tracy’s overprotective mother, and they can’t help admiring Edna’s marriage to Tracy’s father, Wilbur.
“Edna and Wilbur are the perfect love story,” Dixon said. “Theirs is the marriage everyone dreams of having. If you’ve seen the movie The Notebook, well, they’re that couple. They’re the couple who dies and goes to heaven together.”
Never mind that both are eccentric. Wilbur is owner of a magic shop, and Edna is, well, Edna. It’s clear, especially when singing “You’re Timeless to Me,” that they are as much in love as the day they met.
Add to that the real-life chemistry between the actors portraying these roles, and Baton Rouge Little Theater knew it had a winner when casting this production.
“The actor playing Wilbur, Joe Boniol, is my partner in real life,” Mut said. “And our relationship is like Edna’s and Wilbur’s, so we already have this chemistry between us when we step on stage.”
But there is a slight difference.
“I’m usually the crazy one, and Joe is the reserved one,” Mut said. “In this play, he gets to be the crazy one, and I’m more reserved. So, our roles are reversed.”
It’s true. As outrageous as Edna may appear on stage, she’s a homebody, running a laundry business out of her house, afraid to step outside for fear of what neighbors may say about her measurement of 54, triple-E.
“There’s a line when Mr. Pinky asks Edna her bra size when she goes into his plus-size shop,” Mut said. “It’s size 54, triple E, and when they measured me in the fat suit I wear for this show, my measurement was 53 1/2, triple-E.”
“That’s close enough,” Dixon said, laughing.
The musical Hairspray is based on the 1988 film Hairspray, which starred Ricki Lake as Tracy and as Edna, Harris Glen Mistead, who was known as the transvestite Divine.
The musical opened on Aug. 15, 2002, in Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre with Fierstein as Edna and Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy. Hairspray ran six years, closing on Jan. 4, 2009, after playing 2,642 performances and winning eight Tony awards.
Though Edna is the story’s curiosity, Tracy is its catalyst. For it’s this 16-year-old’s confidence and bravery that inspires everyone around her to take steps toward change.
The story begins with Tracy’s dreams of dancing on television and grows into something more. This is Baltimore in the early 1960s, the civil rights movement is in full swing and the Corny Collins Show is a program that features all white dancers.
Well, except for once a month, when local record shop owner Motormouth Maybelle hosts “Negro Day.” That’s the official title of the black version of the Corny Collins Show, minus Corny Collins.
Meanwhile, Tracy is befriended by Motormouth’s son, Seaweed, who invites Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton to a party at his mom’s shop. It’s here where Tracy’s activism grows from proving that a person who is different can achieve her dreams to standing up for others who are different.
Those others are the black kids, who are allowed on television once a month. Tracy believes the Corny Collins Show should be integrated, and she convinces Motormouth and the black kids to march against the station and its policies.
Then ? well, you’ll have to be seated in Baton Rouge Little Theater’s audience to find out what happens next on this rock ‘n’ roll wave in a sea of bouffants and beehives.
“Hairspray is a lot of fun, but there’s a part of it that’s really intense,” Rosalind Reynard said.
She’s one of the theater’s veterans, and she plays Motormouth in this production.
“I feel like I’m following Queen Latifah,” Reynard said. “I played Matron ?Mama’ Morton in Chicago, and Queen Latifah played her in the movie. Now I’m playing Motormouth, and Queen Latifah played her in the movie.”
And Motormouth has the responsibility of singing the musical’s most moving number, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” This is the production’s showstopper.
“We sang this during rehearsal last night, and everyone became pretty emotional,” Reynard said. “A lot of the cast members weren’t alive when all of this was happening, and they don’t know what happened or what it was like. I was alive in the 1960s. I was very young, but I was alive. And I remember what happened.”
“We stopped rehearsal and talked about it,” Dixon said. “Rosalind talked about it with them. It makes a difference if they know the story behind the song, and if someone who has been there can tell them about it. It makes all the difference in the show - it’s the difference between singing a song and feeling it.”
But not all is serious. Reynard runs her fingers through her newly blond hair. See, Motormouth also sings the rhythm and blues-style number, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful.”
Meaning Motormouth is a black woman who is proud of her plus size, along with her head of full, blond hair.
“This is a wig,” Reynard said. “I didn’t dye my hair blond. I have to go to work at the police station tomorrow, and I don’t think they would appreciate me coming to work with blond hair.”
Not that it would look bad. Hey, the wig looks great. It’s just that Reynard might find her coworkers in shock if she showed up as a blonde.
“And with all of this dancing, I’m losing weight,” she said. “I guess I’m going to have to just be blonde and beautiful.”
Mut and Dixon laugh. Marion Bienvenu joins them.
Bienvenu is the star of this show. Yes, she’s Tracy. And yes, like Mut, she has to wear a fat suit for this production.
She’s wearing it now, a rubber body suit of sorts that makes a person look, well, bigger.
“We’re all losing weight,” Bienvenu said.
“That was the problem with the actresses on Broadway,” Dixon said. “There’s so much dancing in this show, and it’s nonstop. They all started losing weight.”
Now, Tracy is a dream role for Bienvenu. She’s majoring in theater at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, concentrating on the theater department’s musical theater program. But she’s home for the summer to be Tracy.
Really be her.
Bienvenu is 22, so she’s time traveling back to her teen years, where girls dream of romance and excitement. Where Tracy wants to break free of all that’s conventional.
“Tracy’s a lot like me,” Bienvenu said. “She’s optimistic, and she tries to find the best in everything. She doesn’t see people as black or white or male or female - she sees them as people. And as she sees it, dance brings us all together.”
Bienvenu is wearing her bouffant ‘do on this night, as well as Tracy’s signature plaid skirt. And when she walks on stage to sing the opening number “Good Morning Balitmore,” she becomes Tracy, wide-eyed and hopeful.
Avery Wilson watches from the audience. He’s the show’s choreographer, a job Dixon asked him to do last summer.
“I saw his choreography work in New Venture Theatre’s production of Smokey Joe’s Caf? last summer, and I knew I had to have Avery for this show,” Dixon said.
“I love this show,” Wilson said. “And I challenged myself as an artist. I wanted to tell the story of the songs and music through dance. This is one of my favorite periods in time, and the people are allowing the music influence to draw them to the middle.”
And will they reach the middle on the Corny Collins Show? Well, Baton Rouge, don’t change the channel.
Tune in to Hairspray to find out.
CAST: Marion Bienvenu, Tracy Turnblad; Lester Mut, Edna Turnblad; Danielle Smith, Penny Pingleton; Andrew DiGerolamo, Link Larkin; Timothy Callais, Corny Collins; Christine Miller, Velma Von Tussle; Shelly Regner, Amber Von Tussle; Cliford Johnson, Seaweed J. Stubbs; Rosalind Reynard, Motormouth Maybelle; Breanna Collier, Little Inez; Joe Boniol, Wilbur Turnblad; Susannah Craig, Purdy Pingleton; Natalie Baily, Tammy; Maggie Joyner, Brenda; Tess Guidry, Shelley; Emily Gyan, Lou Ann; Chase Bouchie, Brad; Zac Thriffiley, Fender; Lance Bordelon, Sketch; Adam Gilbert, IQ; Devin Holloway, Duane; Brian Jordan, Gilbert; Leea Reese, Lorraine; Gordon Coates, Thad; The Dynamites, Tyler Thomas, Shanna Burris, Shenetra McKnight; Brian Pope, Harriman F. Spritzer; Benjamin Caldwell, Mr. Pinky; Lauren Hoffman, Gym Teacher Matron; The Folks of Baltimore, Robyn Oguinye, Megan Dewberry, Olivia Rawlins, Hanna Williams, Haley Schroeck, T.J. Thigpin, Cory Vincent
ARTISTIC STAFF: Keith Dixon, director; Richard Baker, musical director; Avery Wilson, choreographer; Nathan Dewberry, assistant director; Susan Leming, stage manager; Kelly Martin, assistant stage manager; Aason Kinchen, hair/wig design; Kate Abraham, costume design; Chris Adams, set design; Karalyn Pytel, lighting design; Carole Cross, props; Kathy Dubin, props