HAIRSPRAY! You Can’t Stop the Beat!

By Julie McCoy

Hairspray — a play about eliminating racism and discrimination and replacing it with tolerance and acceptance and treating all people with respect regardless of their skin color or weight — is being performed by Redwood City Community Theatre this month. The show hits the stage Aug. 16–18 and Aug. 23–25 at Carrington Hall at Sequoia High School, 1201 Brewster Ave.

About Hairspray

Set in Baltimore in the 1960s, Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad, a pleasantly plump teenager who, along with her friend Penny, is obsessed with the Corny Collins Show, a teen dance show broadcast from local station WYZT. They watch the show every day after school.
Dancers on the Corny Collins Show — including the arrogant and wealthy Amber Von Tussle and her boyfriend, Link Larkin, the lead male dancer — attend the same school as Tracy and Penny.
Amber’s mother, Velma, manages the station that airs the Corny Collins Show and ensures not only that her daughter is featured but also that the show remains a racially segregated program.
African-American youth are allowed on the show only on “Negro Day,” held the last Tuesday of each month and hosted by rhythm and blues disc jockey Motormouth Maybelle, who owns the local record shop.
When Corny Collins announces that one of his show’s council members, Brenda, is pregnant and taking a leave of absence, and that auditions for a replacement will be held during school hours the next day, Tracy enthusiastically tries out. But she is rejected by Velma Von Tussle for being overweight and supporting integration. Eventually, though, Tracy learns some moves from Motormouth Maybelle’s son Seaweed and attracts the attention of Collins, who ends up appointing her to the council. Tracy stands up against the Corny Collins Show’s racism and discrimination, fights for what’s right and teaches Baltimore about the importance of integration.

Play chosen because it’s modern, touches on tough issues

Why did Redwood City Community Theatre choose to perform Hairspray?
“Most production people do these older shows,” said Lesley Hoelper, Redwood City Community Theatre’s director and producer. “The younger people, 40 and younger, they don’t even know these shows. I’m kind of progressive and modern. So I really did it because it is attractive to all ages. … I don’t want to go back and do the older shows anymore. You don’t attract the actors and the audience.”
Hoelper added that another reason she chose the play was because “Most people don’t do Hairspray in this area. The message is about integration and breaking the barrier. The other message is about fat and thin.”
In terms of script and score, Redwood City Community Theatre’s rendition of Hairspray will be similar to the Broadway version, according to Hoelper.
Hairspray was not only a Broadway musical but also a 2007 movie starring John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Queen Latifah. The musical itself was based on the 1988 John Waters movie.

The cast

Leslie Chocano plays the role of Tracy in the Redwood City Community Theatre production. “I actually went into the audition not even trying out for Tracy,” the Woodside High School graduate said.
Her cousins encouraged her to play the role. “We were watching the movie and watching the clip on YouTube, and they said you’ve got to do this,” she said.
Chocano thinks highly of her character. “She is amazing. She stands up for what she believes in. She really joins them in fighting segregation and starts a protest.”
Chocano isn’t a big girl like Tracy, however. “I’m going to have to wear a fat suit,” she said, noting that she made one and “it looks really good.”
What does Chocano like about Hairspray? “It can be a heavy subject, but the show does it in such a beautiful way.”
Chocano and the rest of the cast have been rehearsing Thursdays through Sundays since the beginning of June.
“You need to practice outside of rehearsals,” she said. “It’s hard to do. I have full-time job. It’s a lot of fun. I’m so happy to be doing this.”
Chocano played Gertude in Seussical, a musical based on Dr. Seuss books, when she was high school. “This is what I love doing,” she said. “I love doing theater. You really get to connect with others, meet new people who also love musical theater. I love all the songs. It’s going to be a really big production. I’m just excited for everybody’s performances.”

Penna lands a lead role

Spectrum Magazine Publisher Steve Penna plays Tracy’s mom, Edna Turnblad, in Hairspray.
“Edna should not be looked at as a man playing a woman’s role,” Penna explained. “She is just a large woman, and I am large or, as she would say, a ‘woman of indeterminate girth.’ I am overweight and like the idea of getting the message out that some people that are overweight have reasons for being so, and overcoming that issue and being comfortable with yourself is a challenge, especially when some around them are making fun and laughing at them.”
Penna has never acted or performed in live theater before and noted, “I wanted to try something that was completely outside my comfort zone, and acting and singing in front of an audience is definitely that.”
What has he gotten out of the experience? “So far, a new respect for those who are performers and the love they have for their craft,” he explained. “On a personal level, meeting people from our community that I might not otherwise have the opportunity to meet and work with if I were not in this production.”
Why, in Penna’s opinion, should people come out and see the show? “It is community theater at its best,” he noted. “Our neighbors and friends doing what they love, and doing it quite well, I may add. The play also has some very strong messages about racism and discrimination and how those willing can overcome those societal pressures.”
A high-quality production, Hairspray also has dancers from Studio S. The choreographer for the play, Shari McLeod, in fact owns Studio S. The musical director is Othello Jefferson, who teaches at Sequoia High School.
“The music is incredible,” Hoelper said. “I think everybody will like it. They must come see it.”
What does Hoelper want the audience to get out of the Hairspray experience?
“I want them to walk away laughing, singing songs,” she said. “I try to make it as professional as possible. There’s super-talented people in the community these days. I want people to walk away feeling like they had a great time, great show.”
What are some of the rewards of running Hairspray and what are some of the challenges?
The rewards are “seeing a massive, massive machine come together” and “seeing people happy afterwards,” Hoelper said.
The challenges are that Hairspray deals with tough issues and it was difficult finding the right people for the cast. It’s also a challenge letting people know about the theater itself and its quality, Hoelper said.
“I want to make this the community theater in Redwood City and put it on the map,” she said. “I want it to be Redwood City’s community theater that everybody knows and loves.”

About Redwood City Community Theatre

How did Redwood City Community Theatre get started? Hoelper, who has directed shows at Sequoia High School and started a theater production at Sierra Linda Middle School in San Carlos, was approached a few years ago by the city, which wanted to use Carrington Hall to represent the arts.
“We represent the City of Redwood City basically,” Hoelper said. “The city had wanted to get more into the arts. … They were looking for an opportunity to use Carrington Hall. We basically were born on that request.”
Redwood City Community Theatre was launched in late 2008 and did its first production in 2009.
How does Redwood City Community Theatre operate? Every year, it receives funding from the Redwood City Cultural Commission; Colin Flynn, who donates from his company, Crippen & Flynn; Pete’s Harbor owner Paula Uccelli and the San Mateo Credit Union. “We could never do it without them,” Hoelper emphasized.
“I think community theater is wonderful,” Uccelli said. “Some people go on to be professionals. It’s a heartwarming experience for me. People who love music and theater get a kick out of seeing their neighbor up there. It really is a jewel in the community.
“As long as I can, I will support it not only financially but [by] going out and speaking about it. It gives young people an opportunity to see if it’s something for them and go on improving their craft. It’s a jewel in the community that hasn’t been exposed enough, really. Community supporting theater is very important.”


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