In all of its incarnations, the world of filmmaker John Waters is filled with rebels, outcasts and nonconformists. We travel back to Baltimore in 1962 to explore teenage romantic angst and racial integration in the student musical Hairspray, Jr. (based on the Waters film) at the Hendersonville Community Theatre through Sunday, Aug. 5.
Waters loves to envision the world upside down, like the carnival where the roles are reversed and people can mock authority and challenge social rules and norms. That said, hairspray is a commercial product that keeps everything in order — not a hair out of place — and serves as a metaphor for social pressure to conform. In 1962 Baltimore, obese people and minorities remain relegated to the margins, out of sight and dismissed. That’s when an aspiring high school dancer named Tracy (played by Celia Butterworth) dares to believe in herself and to love the teenage crooner Link Larkin (Samuel Anchia).
The junior version of Hairspray makes it possible for aspiring performers to tackle a musical packed with opportunities to address many of the issues they are living day to day. At a sold-out performance in Hendersonville, the exuberance of the student actors meshed wonderfully with the droll wit of the dialogue and song lyrics.
Tracy and her best friend, Penny (Emma Kent), desperately want to perform on the local teen dance TV program, “The Corny Collins Show,” which airs on a station managed by Velma (Josephine Rodriguez), the mother of popular mean girl Amber von Tussle (Jaylan Brinson). Velma uses her position as station manager to promote her daughter, which only stokes Amber’s hateful attacks on Tracy. Tracy auditions, but Velma rejects her because she is overweight. How is a young, liberal-minded gal who supports racial integration supposed to make it on television when the system is rigged?
While serving time in detention for skipping school to audition, Tracy learns some new dance moves from African-American student Seaweed (Kailand Maxwell). His mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Chloe Ostman), hosts “The Corny Collins Show” once a month for “Negro Day” — because Baltimore is a racially segregated city and so is its teen dance show. Tracy wants to change this, too. (It’s worth noting that when Ostman performed the song “I Know Where I’ve Been,” the themes of racial prejudice, perseverance and hope for a better future of equality resonated deeply.)
While student musicals have their awkward moments, that is part of their charm. It’s a part of the growing experience for any aspiring artist. Butterworth displayed her talents as a singer, dancer and actress, and sustained that level of energy through the entire show, and her performance of the opening song, “Good Morning Baltimore,” was inspiring.
The chemistry between mother and daughter is another highlight of the musical, with Tracy’s mother Edna (Alex Guazzo) turning out a spot-on performance. (One of the hallmarks of many John Waters creations is a drag queen role. The original 1988 film Hairspray starred Divine, aka Harris Glen Milstead, in the role of Edna, the Broadway musical featured Harvey Fierstein, and the 2007 film remake starred John Travolta.)
The costume design and the wigs for Hairspray, Jr. deserve particular praise. The colors, patterns and textures of the clothing for the performers highlight the elements of diversity and sheer joy the musical is meant to convey. In the Waters world, wigs are characters in themselves, and this staging gave attention to that element, too.
Some folks might be reluctant to take in a “junior” performance of a Tony Award-winning musical that was bawdy and raucous in its original adult version. However, the chance to see young people tackle this show underscores the importance of bringing these essential messages and opportunities to young performers.
WHAT: Hairspray, Jr.
WHERE: Hendersonville Community Theatre, 229 S. Washington St., Hendersonville, hendersonvilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Aug. 5. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $15-$26