Keeper of the Plans

Music Theatre’s ‘Hairspray’ to tackle today’s racial, social issues

Edna Turnblad (Sam Zeller, center) is thrilled by the makeover inspired by daughter Tracy (Claire Manship) and celebrated by the Dynamites in “Hairspray.”
Edna Turnblad (Sam Zeller, center) is thrilled by the makeover inspired by daughter Tracy (Claire Manship) and celebrated by the Dynamites in “Hairspray.” Courtesy photo

It’s growing more and more apparent that Music Theatre Wichita’s 2017 season is one of its most politically charged in recent memory.

It might not be immediately obvious, given that none of the musicals in this year’s season – which includes “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Newsies” and now “Hairspray” – were given more than a PG-13 rating.

But with “Hairspray,” set to open on Wednesday, racial and social issues come to the forefront.

“The country’s incredibly divided right now, and I think that art has always commented on the political movement of the day – it certainly was previously when ‘Hairspray’ was initially in theaters and then on stage,” said Adam Kaplan, who plays Link Larkin in the show (coming off a run in Broadway’s “Newsies” and the national tour of “Kinky Boots”). “As artists, we have a responsibility to bring that back to the forefront and comment on it.”

“Hairspray” tells the story of Tracy Turnblad (played by Claire Manship), a Baltimore girl who upends the norms of the 1960s. Tracy, who faces scorn for her weight, wins a spot on “The Corny Collins Show,” becoming one of the “Nicest Kids in Town.” Along the way, Tracy uses her position to advocate for ending racial segregation and body-shaming.

Manship, who is making her MTW debut as Tracy, said she feels a personal connection to the character, having previously been a victim of body-shaming.

“I feel like a lot of people think of Tracy as being bubbly and excited and bigger than life – which is all true – but I’m seeking to find something more earnest about her,” Manship said. “I think it’s very special that the story about Tracy is happening at a theater in a very normal American city. There are people in the audience probably that need that friend.”

It’s the second time Music Theatre Wichita has produced “Hairspray” – the company previously staged it in 2007. That production was a complete re-creation of the Broadway version – down to the choreography, the staging and some of the talent, said Wayne Bryan, producing artistic director of MTW.

Altamiece Cooper will return to play Motormouth Maybelle – the sassy, larger-than-life owner of a downtown record store and host of “Negro Day” on “The Corny Collins Show” – after first playing her here in 2007.

A decade ago, Cooper said, she felt she didn’t have enough life experiences to play Motormouth as fully as she might have liked.

“I was close to just being out of college – I was way young, and to be able to play a role of that magnitude being in my 20s was nuts,” Cooper said. “I’m so excited because now I have a different perspective on it. Now there have been different things in the country … that have happened that need to be addressed. How better than to suck people in with that spunk and spontaneity, fire and sassiness of Motormouth, then grab your attention and really tell you what’s going on.”

One of the unique parts of “Hairspray” is always Edna, Tracy’s mother.

Edna is typically played by a large man in women’s clothing, and that poses a casting challenge, Bryan said.

Sam Zeller (coming straight off the national tour of “Kinky Boots”) will play Edna, after being considered for the role in 2007.

“When you’re auditioning guys in New York who are coming in, they don’t come in in dresses and wigs – it’s hard for guys to audition for this part,” Bryan said. “We really had a tough time 10 years ago, and we had a tough time this time. Fortunately in each case we got a very qualified gentleman who had been in those high heels before and who could bring a lot of confidence to it and some nuance.”

Al Blackstone, a New York-based choreographer who has done work for “So You Think You Can Dance” among other high-profile gigs, returns to choreograph “Hairspray” alongside associate choreographer Katie Drablos. Blackstone and “Hairspray” director Mark Madama last partnered for “Oklahoma!” as part of last year’s MTW season.

Matt Riedl: 316-268-6660, @RiedlMatt

‘Hairspray’

What: Based on the original 1988 film, “Hairspray” is a Tony Award-winning musical set in the 1960s – the third show of MTW’s 2017 season.

Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas

When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 8 p.m. July 14, 2 and 8 p.m. July 15 and 2 and 7 p.m. July 16

Tickets: $32-$68 evenings, $30-$62 matinees. Tickets available at www.mtwichita.org, the box office at 225 W. Douglas or by calling 316-265-3107.

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