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Published: Thu, May 11, 2017 @ 12:05 a.m.

Musical at Youngstown Playhouse remains relevant




It’s not surprising that “Hairspray,” with its themes of racism and other social issues, is being discovered by a new generation. In December, the musical was performed live on NBC as a television special.

The Youngstown Playhouse will take a shot at it next, and, according to director C. Austin Hill, it will not shy away from its message.

“The NBC special lacked the political punch that I would’ve wanted to see, and that’s what our production is adding,” said Hill, who is a theater professor at Youngstown State University. “It’s about whose lives matter when, and it’s set in Baltimore, which is a hotbed of racial conversation. You better hit those notes and make those points.”

Hill said the production will be different in other ways. Costumes and hair will be squarely in the early ’60s, but the set won’t try too hard to replicate a high school of that era.

“The scenic design is quite abstract,” said Hill, noting that there will be bigger things at work.

“One of the things we will do from beginning to end is create two conceptually distinct visual and psychological aspects of the play,” he said. “[Snobbish character] Velma Von Tussle lives in a throwback world and punishes those who don’t behave and look as she wants them to. She’s a throwback to the false nostalgia of that time period. ... Then there is the sexy ’60s world that [protagonist] Tracy Turnblad wants to be in.”

The “Hairspray” era was a time of transition, as America moved away from the simplicity and silent inequality of the ’50s to the tumultuous ’60s, a time of civil-rights marches, the space race, the cold war and the atomic age.

“Young people were looking forward, and their parents were trying to pull back,” said Hill. “We are trying to get this in our production.” Any production of “Hairspray” requires a lot of young people to play the high school students. Hill said about a third of his cast are YSU students, and their reaction to the material has been interesting.

“Young people claim ownership of this musical,” said Hill. “They feel like it is speaking directly to them. I’ve seen that in my cast. They feel like this is their story, which is fabulous to me. They connect with the material. They feel ready to fight for their peers, for the rights of Little Inez and against those who bully Tracy. It gets a hold of their passionate compassion.”

The winner of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, “Hairspray” revolves around plus-size teen Tracy Turnblad, who’s only desire is to dance on the popular “Corny Collins Show.” When her dream comes true, Tracy is transformed from social outcast to star, and she must use her newfound power to dethrone the reigning school queen, Amber Von Tussle, win the affections of heartthrob Link Larkin, and racially integrate a television show.

Nancy Andersen Wolfgang, professor of musical theater at YSU, is the musical director. The show’s nonstop choreography is being handled by Allison Hill, who also created the set design.

Ellen Licitra is the lighting designer. Therese Pitzulo created the costumes, and Johnny Pecano serves as technical director.

The cast has a healthy mix of veterans and students. Halla Henry plays Tracy Turnblad, while Robert Dennick Joki plays her mother, Edna Turnblad – a role traditionally played by a male.

Completing the cast of supporting characters are Jude Mikulich, Ed Haller, AnnMarie Lowerre, Jessica Hirsch, Emily Shipley, James Major Burns, Carla Gipson, Simon Sedmak, Lar’rayja Hill, Monique Lopez, Mikayla Moore, Sierra Ellis, Denise Sculli and Matt White.

Joki, the founder of Rust Belt Theater Company and the creator of the drag queen character Starrlet O’Hara (from his original musical “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas”), was an easy choice to play Edna.

“The first question I asked [Playhouse manager James McClellan] was, ‘Do we have an Edna?,’” said Hill. “He said, ‘Oh, do we ever,’ and boy was he right. Joki was cast in the role before I even was named director, and I’ve never been happier to inherit an actor. He understood it. And what I love is that he is not playing Edna like a joke or like a drag role. He is doing her very authentic, sweet and lovable, and he doesn’t force the audience to see her as a man dressing as a woman.”

Joki, who last appeared at the Playhouse in a late-’90s production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” has been enjoying his return.

He said the biggest challenge in playing Edna is that he is playing an actual woman. “She isn’t a drag queen or a caricature like the characters I’ve played in ‘How The Drag Queen Stole Christmas’ or ‘The Rocky Horror Show,’” said Joki. “Edna is a beautiful and talented woman who once had hopes and dreams of becoming a plus-sized fashion designer, but life just kind of got in the way. When her daughter becomes a dancer on ‘The Corny Collins Show,’ Edna is happy for her, but the moment is bittersweet because she feels like she missed her own shot at success.

“There are days that I can certainly relate to that. I’ve tried to channel some of those feelings into my portrayal.”

Though he loves “Hairspray,” Joki says it’s a show that he wishes was obsolete.

“I wish that we didn’t have to worry about problems like bullying, and especially racism,” he said. “As an ample American, I wish that body shaming wasn’t still as big of an issue as it was when the original script was written, but it is. It’s something I have to deal with every single day, and it’s not always easy to rise above. And that’s ultimately what the show is about – facing adversity and changing the world for the better.”

Hill also expects audiences will be awed by Carla Gipson’s portrayal of Motormouth Maybelle, and particularly her rendition of the song “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

“She had the cast in tears during rehearsal,” said Hill. “We had to stop and talk about it.”

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