'Hairspray' mixes youthful dance with tough topics
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2013
2/28/13 at 8:42 AM
Getting in touch with her inner teenager is the last thing actress Claire Kifer worries about in preparing for "Hairspray."
"I'm around teenagers all the time," said Kifer, who is a cheerleading coach in her time away from various local theatres. "In fact, I've been working with teenagers pretty much ever since I graduated high school.
"So it's real easy for me to tap into that wide-eyed optimism," she said, laughing. "That's practically second nature for me."
Kifer has the role of Tracy Turnblad, the dance-mad Baltimore high school student at the center of Tulsa Project Theatre's production of "Hairspray," the musical adapted from John Waters' hit film.
Tracy's ambition is to show off her dance moves on a local TV show - never mind the fact that she doesn't conform to the stereotyped image of people who usually get the spotlight.
But Tracy's efforts to get herself and her friends onto "The Corny Collins Show" becomes a crusade of a different sort, one that challenges the accepted boundaries about race, about acceptance, about equality, about love.
"What I love about Tracy is that she's a person who sees the best in everyone," Kifer said. "And she's someone who is really quite brave, who sees something that's wrong, who comes up with an idea to change it and sees it through.
"Personally, I'd love to be that brave," Kifer said, laughing.
Director and choreographer Heather Hall-Newman said one of the appeals of a show like "Hairspray" is that "it allows you to address a number of very sensitive subjects in a fun, light-hearted package.
"But you can't let the message get lost in all the fun dance numbers," she said. "You have to be aware of the really heavy stuff that underlies all the action. We've had a lot of very interesting conversations in the course of putting this show together, talking about what this story means to each of us."
"Hairspray" is the largest show of Tulsa Project Theatre's first season as an Actors Equity company, with close to 40 people in the cast.
"It's the largest and the fastest-moving show we've ever done," said producer Todd Cunningham. "Both in the pace of the show itself, because the scenes change so fast, and also in how we've had to get this show up and running."
The recent Bassmaster Classic fishing tournament, which occupied the entirety of the Tulsa Convention Center for several days, meant the company had to move its "Hairspray" rehearsals to Booker T. Washington High School.
In exchange, Hall-Newman and other members of the show's creative staff have been working with students preparing for their own production of "Hairspray" in April.
"We'll have five students in the cast as apprentices, in roles they'll reprise for their show," Cunningham said. "And having our professional theater people working with these students helps give them the experience of being in a professional show. It's one way of fulfilling our mission to influence the next generation of theatre people, whether as performers or audience members."
The bulk of the cast, however, will be members of the current generation of theater people, including Christopher Middlebrook as Corny Collins, Janna O'Leary as Amber van Tussle, Jonathan Gilland as Link, Justin Boyd as Wilbur and Sean Rooney as Tracy's mother, Edna.
Having a man play Edna Turnblad has been a hallmark of "Hairspray," from Divine in the original movie, to performers ranging from Harvey Fierstein to John Pinette on Broadway, to John Travolta in the film of the musical.
"Sean is one of those fearless performers," Hall-Newman said. "He gives himself completely to this. It's really kind of sweet, watching him and Justin together. And sometimes, Sean really doesn't have to act - he does the 'blushing bride' for real."
Of course, some of that high color may be the result of "Hairspray's" dance numbers.
"Each one of the dance numbers is at least six minutes long - and then there's a reprise," Hall-Newman said. "The finale is like 15 solid minutes of dancing. It's crazy.
"But at the same time, it's hard for me to dumb down the dancing," she said. "For one thing, this is the first show Tulsa Project has done that is really owned by a younger generation. And you don't want to veer too far from their expectations."
Still, Kifer said, as much as she enjoys the dancing in "Hairspray," it can pose something of a problem for the person playing Tracy Turnblad.
"This show is a real cardio workout," Kifer said, laughing. "It's hard to stay chubby, as Tracy's supposed to be, when you're doing this kind of a workout every night."
‘HAIRSPRAY’ THE MUSICAL
Presented by Tulsa Project Theatre
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and March 8; 2
and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and March 9; 2
Where: Assembly Hall, Tulsa Convention
Tickets: $20-$30. 1-877-TULSA-CC,
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Actors run through a dress rehearsal for Tulsa Project Theatre's production of "Hairspray." JOEY JOHNSON / for the Tulsa World