Preview: ‘Hairspray’ a collaborative effort

Cast members promoting "Hairspray" at Uniontown Mall. Photo Credit: Kristen Tunney

Cast members promoting “Hairspray” at Uniontown Mall. Photo Credit: Kristen Tunney

One thing can be said for theater – it is often very much a collaborative effort between the director, the cast, and the crew. The production of “Hairspray,” opening July 25 at the State Theatre Center for the Arts in Uniontown, is no different.

The Uniontown production of “Hairspray” is a community theater production directed and choreographed by John Wagner. This is the first production for which Wagner is directing and choreographing.

“I approached the State in January about directing a show for them in the summer,” Wagner says. “Once we got the Board of Directors on board, we started to search for a title that would appeal to the community and we finally chose ‘Hairspray.’”

Wagner, who says he has been dancing for most of his life, finds that though choreography comes easy to him, it can be challenging at times.

“The challenge is tailoring the choreography to the different experience levels in the cast and still making it look impressive to the audience,” says Wagner. “There is no doubt in my mind that we have achieved this.”

Stage manager Kristen Tunney, who does not appear on stage but admits to dancing off stage during the finale, says, “’Hairspray’ is one . . . dance number after the next. As a non-trained dancer, I can say that it all seems extremely challenging from my point of view.”

Wagner and Tunney agree that this production is quite a community collaborative effort and both stress that the production has been made possible because of the support they’ve gotten from the community.

“The list of volunteers is long and this would not have been possible without all of the help we have received,” says Wagner.

Though they have received a lot of support from the community and have a cast of approximately 45 people – all volunteers – every production has its challenges. For Wagner, his biggest challenge was not the vocal performances or even the choreography.

“The biggest challenge has actually been working around 45 people’s different schedules!” Wagner says. “A summer show is tough because there are a lot of activities and vacations to work around.”

The cast of “Hairspray” is quite large and the cast members’ ages range from 15 to 65 years old, according to Wagner. The cast is comprised largely of area residents, including some from Uniontown, Connellsville, Brownsville, Mt. Pleasant, California, and more. Stage manager Tunney reports that three quarters of the cast are high school students from three counties.

“We even have someone commuting from Washington D.C.,” adds Wagner.

With such a large cast and so many schedules to work around, Wagner and Tunney are glad that they have had an eight-week rehearsal period. They began rehearsals in early June.

“We’ve spent weeks working and cleaning each number, and I think that the cast’s hard work will really show in the final product,” Tunney says.

But “Hairspray,” set in Baltimore, Md., in the 1960s is more than just a show with fun music and lots of dance numbers.

“’Hairspray’ is a show about embracing and celebrating who you are – regardless of size, color, gender or anything else,” says Tunney.

The show’s unlikely heroine, plump teen Tracy Turnblad, wins a spot on a television dance show and works to desegregate the show. Wagner and Tunney both feel that the show’s message of acceptance is still important today.

“As a country,” says Tunney, “we really don’t spend enough time recognizing the challenges of acceptance that so many groups still face today.”

Wagner adds, “It’s an important message, especially because there are still people today that are fighting for the same basic rights that others have.”

In order to appropriately convey such a message, “Hairspray” requires a diverse cast and has many opportunities for black actors.

“I just was part of a production of ‘Hairspray’ at a local high school this spring,” says Tunney, “and we found that the message really resonated with our audience. We also faced some challenges getting a diverse cast to audition.”

But casting this production didn’t seem as challenging to Tunney.

“At the community theater level, we definitely went into the process . . . very aware that we needed a truly diverse cast. We had a first round of auditions and got some great people . . . and then we added a few more people into our cast at a second round of auditions.”

“Hairspray” began in 1988 as a John Waters film, was adapted for the Broadway stage in 2002, and was remade as a film in 2007. Those familiar with the story, films, and other productions of the play will know that the role of Tracy’s mother Edna Turnblad, is often played by a male.

In the 2007 film, Edna Turnblad was played by John Travolta. Wagner, who says he is staying true to past productions of “Hairspray,” was able to cast a male in the role as well.

“I was absolutely insistent on having a man play the role of Edna and we were very lucky to have someone audition who was PERFECT for the role,” says Wagner.

“Our Edna is . . . Toby Maykuth, who is a board member at the State, and who directs the spring musicals at Albert Gallatin High School,” says Tunney.

Set in the ‘60s, “Hairspray” also presents many opportunities for great hairstyles and Wagner is lucky enough to have a hair stylist in the cast who is able to teach the cast members about period-appropriate hair styles that they can do on their own.

“Local stylist Rachael Szabo is our hair and makeup coordinator for the production,” says Tunney. “Rachael will be styling the wigs we’re using.”

Tunney also adds that Szabo has done makeup for some of the recent film productions that have come to the Pittsburgh area.

With a dedicated cast of 45, Wagner and Tunney are adamant that the production is a collaboration of many efforts – director, choreographer, stage manager, dance captain, cast, crew, stylist and community – and they never hesitate to credit the community with making the production possible.

“What sets us apart,” says Tunney, “is the level of heart and commitment from our cast. Every one of them is a volunteer, and they’ve been so incredibly committed and hardworking throughout this process. I think John would agree that they’ve made doing this show a real joy, and it’s been a fun process for all of us.”

Wagner calls the show “a very positive and upbeat show with great music,” which are often crowd-drawing elements. With several hundred presales already, according to Tunney, reservations are recommended.

“Hairspray” runs July 25 and 26 at 8 p.m. and July 27 at 2:30 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling 724-439-1360, via the State Theatre Center for the Arts Facebook page or via their website at Tickets are $10. The State Theatre Center for the Arts is located at 27 E. Main St., Uniontown, Pennsylvania 15401.

Story by Danette Marie Levers for Pennsylvania Bridges

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