Wichita native Emma Craig said snagging the coveted role of 1960s teen queen Tracy Turnblad in “Hairspray” for Crown Uptown Theatre has been “10 years in the making.”
“I remember where I was when I heard that the John Waters film was going to be made into a musical. And then I remember where I was when I heard the musical was going to be made into a movie,” said Craig, who came up through the ranks in Music Theatre for Young People and was in “High School Musical” for Music Theatre of Wichita before launching her career as an actress in New York three years ago. She also is locally familiar for countless roles at Mosley Street Melodrama.
“At 17, I even went to New York to audition for the (2007) movie. I’ve been singing and dancing to this wonderful music for 10 years, but this is my first opportunity to do it for an audience,” Craig said. “And since my parents met while working at Crown Uptown, it’s like I’ve come full circle with this show.”
The 2002 Broadway hit, based on the cult 1988 film, tells of a plus-size teen in Baltimore in 1962 whose optimism, idealism and energy lead to integrating a local TV dance show so the black and white kids could rock ’n’ roll together. It won eight Tony Awards (out of 13 nominations), including best musical, thanks to bouncy, brassy music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan.
Among the toe-tapping, belt-it-to-the-back-wall tunes are “Good Morning, Baltimore,” “It Takes Two,” “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and the show-stopping “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” The show opens Friday at Crown Uptown and runs through July 27.
In the size range of 12-14, Craig is the smallest of the New York-based Glamazons, a sexy big-girl pop group in sequined corsets that attracted considerable attention on “America’s Got Talent.”
“I’m in sort of a bizarre, no-man’s-land where I’m not large enough for plus-size modeling, but too large for the image of many roles. I’ve always had success as a comedic character actress. I’ll always be hired for the wise-cracking best friend. But Tracy is probably the only role that allows me to get the last bow in. She’s a role model I would’ve liked to have when I was growing up,” Craig said.
“The reason that I love Tracy as a character is that she’s a sweet girl with a kind heart and kind soul, but she has a bit of the tigress in her just dying to escape,” Craig said. “She has no limits, no half-measures and no regrets. That’s what I identify with most. The show is all about being yourself. That’s what makes her attractive. She is so committed to being herself that she is unstoppable.”
Playing Tracy’s good-hearted, overly protective, plus-size mom, Edna, is local favorite Kyle Vespestad. No stranger to a dress, Vespestad has tickled audiences as delightfully ditzy Miss California in the satirical “Pageant.” By tradition, the mom role is played by a man in drag, from Divine in the original movie, to Harvey Fierstein on Broadway to John Travolta in the musical movie.
“Edna is quite a character. She takes in other people’s laundry and hasn’t left her house since Mamie Eisenhower’s era. She’s a big, big woman who is overprotective of her daughter because she’s also big and doesn’t want her to get hurt,” said Vespestad, a longtime choreographer, writer and frequent performer at Cabaret Oldtown. This will be his first Crown Uptown appearance since 2001.
“She’s a strong character, but doesn’t realize it at the beginning because she’s plodding around in bathrobe, knee-highs and curlers and hiding from the world,” Vespestad said. “But when her daughter takes her to a plus-size shop and shows her she can be beautiful at any size, it’s a good message.”
Playing Velma Von Tussle, the arch-enemy of both Tracy and her mother, is another local favorite, Christi Moore, who played the role in the 2007 Music Theatre of Wichita production.
“Yep, Velma’s the villain,” said Moore, owner, director and frequent performer at Cabaret Oldtown. “She’s a bigot who isn’t comfortable with anybody but her ‘own kind.’ She’s a former beauty pageant winner who thinks she achieved the American Dream because of that. But now as a producer of the local TV dance show, she is a stage mother who is vicariously trying to live through her pretty daughter, Amber, by making sure she’s the center of attention at any cost.”
Moore says she revels in playing the despicable Velma because it’s cathartic.
“I love playing the bad guy because she’s so outrageously mean about everything. It’s fun to play her attitude. It’s a chance to let loose, to do and say things I could never — and would never — do in real life,” said Moore, whose last Crown appearance was in 1996.
New York native Nathalie Hostin plays Motormouth Maybelle, a record shop owner who, once a month, plays host to “Negro Day” on the segregated dance show. It’s a role she’s played twice before in Florida theaters.
“Maybelle is the mama. She’s a straight-shooter who is serious about not letting her children forget about the struggle for equality, but she’s also very funny. I love that duality about the character,” said Hostin, who grew up in Queens but has been based in Tampa with her acting career for a decade.
“I bring a lot of myself to the character,” Hostin said. “I connect with her in a lot of ways. The singing, the attitude, the sass are natural for me. But the serious message of the show is brought home to me every time I do it. It says it’s all right to be me. I’m happy to be me.”
Other major characters include Amber Von Tussle (Ashley Lauren), Velma’s bratty, self-centered princess of a daughter who is competing against Tracy to be Miss Teenage Hairspray; Penny Pingleton (Janet Wiggins), Tracy’s dorky and devoted best friend who blossoms when love finally finds her; Seaweed J. Stubbs (Sidney DuPont), Maybelle’s son and hip dancing star of Negro Day who falls for Penny; Little Inez (Latoya Edwards), Maybelle’s daughter and another dynamite dancer; and Link Larkin (Colin Anderson), the handsome local teen heartthrob who is torn between perky, likable but plump Tracy and pretty but prickly and prissy Amber.
“Link is a musician who wants to be the next Elvis. He’s only 17 but he’s ambitious and driven, which I can identify with. He’s not stupid, but he is a little shallow. He’s well aware of all the lovey-dovey looks he gets from the girls on the TV show, but he’s more in love with the camera,” said Anderson, an Oklahoma City native last seen as Gabe, the ghost son, in Crown’s ground-breaking “Next to Normal.”
“When he sings to a girl on camera, he’s actually singing to the camera rather than to the girl. He thinks of the pretty Amber as a good accessory for his image. He has his jerky moments — that’s where my acting comes in,” Anderson said with a laugh. “But he’s actually a good guy. He comes to see Tracy for the beautiful person she is inside.”
Directing the 27-member cast, the largest in Crown Uptown history, is Matthew Rumsey, producing artistic director for the theater. Guest music director is James Dobinson, an Australian who has worked on several off-Broadway shows and in films. Choreographer is Gigi Gans.
Period 1960s costumes are by Dora Arbuckle with big-hair wigs by Darian Leatherman. Set design is by Greg Crane, lighting design by Dan Harmon, and sound design by Joshua Gordon, Matt Butler and Kerry Bainum.