Wednesday, November 22, 2017
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American Stage cranks up the volume with 'Hairspray' in the park

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American Stage is the Park has always been our biggest outdoor theater event. This year, it might also be the loudest.

Artistic staff are planning a concertlike experience. Scenes in the park may start with a television studio in 1962 Baltimore, just like the Broadway musical. But square that or cube that with lights and amplifiers, and you'll start to get a sense of what American Stage is going for here.

"I keep saying to people, 'If you've seen Hairspray, you haven't seen anything like this,'" said Matthew McGee, who plays Edna Turnblad, mother of the show's heroine, teenager Tracy Turnblad.

Hairspray, an adaptation of a 1988 John Waters cult classic, has new life thanks to a live version on NBC last year. And it's more than a dance show. The first park production chosen by producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte, Hairspray falls in line with the season's theme, "In Search of America," covering issues like race and body image with a lighthearted touch.

Dance, however, is the vehicle that gets those themes moving. The story focuses on "pleasantly plump" high school student Tracy, whose dream is to get onto The Corny Collins Show. The dream comes true but stirs up trouble, both with class queen bee Amber von Tussle and her manipulative stage mother, Velma von Tussle. That rivalry leads into a broader racial tension.

Shain Stroff does double duty as the show's director and choreographer. Stroff, who choreographed last year's park production of Spamalot, created this cast's movements from scratch. A sequence that introduces white and black actors doing the mashed potato on separate sides of a studio lays those issues bare.

Stroff told the African-American dancers, mentored by Motormouth Maybelle, to "just make this really full out and a little angry," said Allyson Pace, who plays Tracy.

"Their movement is a little more passion-driven and raw than the 'nice' kids, who are bubble gum and straight up and down," Pace said. "Whereas you feel the passion for the dance in the Motormouth kids. And seeing that difference really tells you the story."

Hairspray would likely not have survived as a one-dimensional morality play. There's a certain silliness in both its plot and characters that trades gravitas for likeability.

Tampa native Deejay Young plays Seaweed J. Stubbs, the love interest of Penny Pingleton, Tracy's best friend. (Another local talent, St. Petersburg native Ephraim Sykes, played Seaweed in NBC's Hairspray Live! last year.) The large, deep cast includes Jayne Trinette (Motormouth), who debuted in American Stage's production of August Wilson's Fences; Alison Burns (Velma von Tussle), who starred in three previous park productions; and Scott Daniel (Corny Collins), who doubles as the show's wig designer.

Then there's McGee, who played the title role in Freefall's Mame. Though he's often seen in drag, he's had plenty of roles that have nothing to do with drag, such as the Narrator in Into the Woods. Edna Turnblad, Tracy's overprotective mother, has traditionally been played by men, including the drag performer Divine, John Travolta and Harvey Fierstein.

"For me, it's my favorite role I've ever done," McGee said about playing Edna. "Ever."

McGee pointed to the character's vulnerability and fear of leaving the house.

I always say, 'Don't play the laugh,'" he said. "Just love Tracy, and if the audience sees that they'll totally buy the laugh thing.'"

While the rehearsal schedule for park production is always jammed, Stroff's days have been particularly busy. One of the most challenging numbers, Welcome to the '60s, includes six groups of dancers and two costume changes.

"It's a lot of information for me to get out of my head and on paper, and a lot of information for actors to get into their bodies," he said.

Camp and nostalgia might have rendered Hairspray the family-friendly fun musical that it is. But a subtext of inclusivity, at once naive and engaging, might explain why the show keep getting reinvented.

"There's a man in a dress," McGee said. "It's wacky and it's fun. There's a lot of comedy and dancing and romance. But it also has a serious core message about loving other people and loving yourself."

As with all park shows, you can spread out on a blanket, bring a pet on pet night or go elegant and attend the fundraising gala on opening night. Pace is betting customers won't stay seated the entire night.

"Dancing is encouraged," she said.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

   
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