Where: 820 E Genesee St, Syracuse, NY
When: Nov. 28, 2014 – Jan. 4, 2015
Preview by Haley Chouinard
In the middle of a season that consists of dark comedies and poignant dramas, Syracuse Stage has mixed in a production of the big, brassy musical Hairspray.
Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a full-figured teen in 1960s Baltimore who encounters discrimination and racism while dancing on local TV show. Though the show tackles tough issues like integration and body image, it remains upbeat and zany throughout.
Syracuse Stage will be co-producing the show, which opens on Nov. 28, with Syracuse University Drama, which means that students will be taking the stage alongside professional actors.
“It’s one of the best models that I’ve ever worked with,” Bill Fennelly, the director of Syracuse Stage’s production, said of the co-production. “I believe that the future of the American theater lies in a healthy collaborative relationship between current practitioners and what’s happening at the university level, with the training of students. When you add the notion of research, training and exploration to the rehearsal process, it makes for a very dynamic setting. ”
The students involved are actually doing a lot of the show’s heavylifting — two of the lead roles, Link Larkin and Seaweed, are being played by SU students.
“The co-production aspect has definitely been difficult but so rewarding,” Troy Hussmann, the SU junior playing Link, said.
“We’re in class all day and then we go straight to rehearsal until 11 at night. It’s a lot of work, but this is a fast-paced business. It’s a great training process.”
Fennelly attributes the popularity of the musical to its source material, the 1988 John Waters film of the same name.
“The original film was edgy and naughty while still being delightful,” Fennelly said. “John Waters is a real antagonist, but he’s fun at the same time. He’s always poking at America and getting it to look at itself. He made people look at things that we might find unpleasant in a new way.”
The John Waters film gathered something of a cult following in the ‘90s. In 2002, the musical adaptation, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, debuted on Broadway. The Broadway production, which starred Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy and Harvey Fierstein as Edna, won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. The success of the musical prompted the making of a star-studded movie adaptation in 2007.
Despite the show’s rich production history, Fennelly and his cast and crew are determined to make the show their own. Fennelly said that when Timothy Bond, the producing artistic director at Syracuse Stage, called to offer him the job, he told him that they weren’t interested in a recreation of the Broadway production.
“As a director, that’s always music to my ears,” Fennelly said. “I’m not interested in recreating someone else’s work or doing what’s already been done.”
Fennelly went on to say that he’s brought his own experiences into the direction of the show.
“It’s a deeply personal show for a lot of people,” he said. “I’m not black and I’m not a fat girl, but I am a gay man and I spent the majority of my years in school surviving intense bullying. The story of Hairspray, while I might not share the exact characteristics of these characters, I share a similar human experience. I’ve dealt with bullying and I’ve had to figure out who I am within society. The issues of civil rights and human rights hit very close to home for me.”
Mary Digangi, who’s playing Tracy, said that the show’s notoriety has made her experience all the better.
“It’s wonderful to walk in having the audience already be so in love with it,” Digangi said. “With some shows you kind of have to take the audience by the hand and say ‘Come with me, you’re going to love it,’ and with this show, they already do.”
Hussmann said that performing in such an acclaimed show has been a freeing experience.
“You really get a chance to put your own spin on things,” he said. “It’s been so fun in the rehearsal room because you have such a solid base, with the John Waters film, the Broadway show, and the movie musical — there’s so much that you can draw from or choose to do differently. It’s exciting to see what’s changed.”
There’s a lot about Hairspray that has contributed to its popularity. It’s a love story. It’s an underdog story. It’s a period musical. It’s got spunky songs and punchy dance numbers. All of that has helped make it a smash hit, but what’s really made it timeless is the inherent personal element that the show has.
“Hairspray is such a fun show, but if that’s all you bring to it, as an actor, you’re missing this whole other aspect,” Austin Holmes, an SU junior playing Seaweed, said. “I’ve watched a lot of interpretations where they’re singing about segregation but they’re just smiling and dancing. It’s very easy to get lost in the bubblegum aspect of it, but there’s more to it than that.”
Digangi echoed Holmes’ sentiments, adding that Fennelly has made sure that this production of the show is less cartoonish and more realistic.
“The making of theater is always a living thing,” Fennelly said. “It’s always an envelope-pushing experience. It’s transformative. It should be a transformational experience. We bring people into a room, take them on a journey, and hope that their hearts and minds and spirits are a little different at the end of it.”