In ALT's 'Hairspray,' serious roots underscore frothy fun
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
For all the frivolity and over-the-top fun of Hairspray, the season-ending musical at Amarillo Little Theatre, perhaps the most important scene in the show is its most serious.
In the musical, based on John Water's 1988 mainstream hit comedy, Tracy Turnblad (played here by Emma Elkins) has broken out of prison following her arrest for protesting for the racial integration of Baltimore's The Corny Collins Show, the popular TV dance program. She has fled to the black side of town, where she rejoins Motormouth Maybelle (Gina Doss), a record-store owner and host of the show's monthly "Negro Day."
It's then that Tracy gets a serious reality check — and so does the audience. Maybelle grills young Tracy on why she began protesting the Collins show's segregated policies: To get famous? To get the boy? In doing so, Maybelle reminds Tracy and the rest of us that the battle for racial integration never was — and never is — an easy fight, breaking out into the song "I Know Where I've Been," a gospel-inspired power ballad that's a true showstopper.
To insure that, ALT's production — which opens at 8 p.m. Thursday for a three-weekend run — turns the song over to powerhouse Amarillo singer Devlon D. Jones, who plays Maybelle's boyfriend. But, as director Allen Shankles tried to impart to his cast at a recent rehearsal, Jones' soaring vocals aren't enough to sell the moment.
"Your parents and grandparents lived his," Shankles told the young African-American actors, many of whom are new to ALT. "I want to feel it."
Jones, last seen on ALT's Mainstage in Smoky Joe's Cafe, said the song is "very emotional ... (and) very, very timely."
The song almost didn't make the cut when Waters' film was adapted for stage in 2002. As Marc Shaiman, who wrote the show's music, said in the behind-the-scenes book Hairspray: The Roots, some producers thought "I Know Where I've Been" was too preachy, but Shaiman felt it was too important and fought for it.
"We simply didn't want our show to be yet another show-biz version of a civil rights story where the black characters are just background. And what could be more Tracy Turnblad-like than to give the 'eleven o'clock number' to the black family at the heart of the struggle?" Shaiman said in the book. "Luckily ... the audiences embraced this moment, which enriches the happy ending to follow, and it is our proudest achievement of the entire experience of writing Hairspray."
"I don't want the audience to think we're not going to have a ton of fun, but (the song) gives the show meaning beyond pure entertainment value," Shankles said.
Hairspray has been on Shankles' wishlist for several years, and the theater had even signed a contract to include it on its 2011-12 season, the director said.
"I got cold feet. I didn't think we could cast enough African-Americans at the time, and I wanted to cast it the way it needed to be cast," Shankles said.
For the production, he cast about a dozen black actors, including students from West Texas A&M University and the ALT Academy.
"(The musical) really kind of cuts to the bone on inclusion ... and acceptance," Shankles said. "It's not only the African-American element, but (Tracy) is kind of the anti-ingenue. She's a little heavy, not the cute, skinny girl that one would think of as a leading lady. She's a dynamo."
Elkins said she never thought she'd get the chance to play the character.
"She sings, dances and acts — it's truly a triple-threat role," Elkins said. "(And) as much of a fun and crazy show as it is, there's a (kernel) of truth ... to be true to who you are. It makes me love myself more, and I love myself already."
The show also offers new opportunities to other stars, including Tevae Shoels, an Academy student who plays Seaweed, the dynamic young black man who steals the heart of Penny Pingleton (Laurenn Reynolds), Tracy's sheltered, white best friend.
"It's the first time I've ever played a black character," said Shoels, a 17-year-old African-American student from Tascosa High School. "He's a very egotistical, sexy, confident (character) — not me at all. ... It's fun to be groovy and be myself and not worry about classical training."
Co-star Drew Grimes doesn't quite to be himself as Edna Turnblad, Tracy's gravel-voiced mother who has been traditionally played by a man since Waters' muse Divine starred in the 1988 film. (Harvey Fierstein played her in the original Broadway production and will again in a live NBC production in December.)
"I feel lovely — and huge," Grimes said during a recent photo shoot, his first time in full drag (including padding and shaping undergarments). "But I'm so beyond excited.
"The hardest part about being a woman? Remembering that I'm a woman. I get comfortable with how I am performing, then I remember that I'm supposed to be a woman. But when I put this on, it's like, OK, I'm a woman now. ... This is going to help me tremendously."
Grimes and other cast members said they love the show's energy, but they agreed that — with racial tensions on the rise again — the show couldn't be more timely.
"It's basically about how to love one another and laying aside your differences," Jones said. "This is what we need to do in the world today. There's a lot of stuff going on, but (we need to) connect together and love each other."
Hairspray will be staged at 8 p.m. Thursday through May 7, May 12 to 14 and May 19 to 21 and 2:30 p.m. May 15 and 22 in the ALT Mainstage, 2019 Civic Circle. Tickets are $22 for adults, $19 for seniors and students, and $16 for children Thursdays and Sundays, and $25 adults, $22 students and seniors, and $18 children Fridays and Saturdays. Call 806-355-9991 or visit www.amarilolittletheatre.org.