30 Jun ASPEN DAILY NEWS: Extra Volume and a Hold on the Audience: Theatre Aspen’s ‘Hairspray’ joyously breaks down barriers
In the opening scene of Theatre Aspen’s production of “Hairspray,” the main character, Tracy Turnblad, emerges on the stage tucked under the covers of her bed. The bed, however, is vertical rather than horizontal, and Turnblad, played by Taylor Hartsfield, easily surges from semi-supine sleep to swinging song in seconds. The notion that Hartsfield is literally rolled onto the stage standing up is thematic of this production, which never slows for a moment, as 21 actors occupy the stage with unbridled energy and concentrated talent to tell a story that is as essential today as it was during the time “Hairspray” takes place – 1960s Baltimore.
Turnblad is a determined and necessarily idealistic teenager undaunted by society’s judgments of race, gender and body image. With a passion for dance and a hunger to shimmy and shake on “The Corny Collins Show,” the plump soon-to-be star makes her way into the cast and fights for integration into the all-white show.
Director and choreographer Mark Martino says, “‘Hairspray’ entertains the heck out of us, and yet there is a message underneath it which I find appealing, which is about acceptance and generosity and love that doesn’t know any barriers in terms of color, size, gender, and it wraps up its message in a big pink bow.”
This is Martino’s 10th directing gig with Theatre Aspen, and he said this show is a choreographer’s dream, with 22 production numbers. And while “Hairspray” is a dance show about a dance show, all the physical expression must move the story forward.
“It’s not about the steps,” he explains. “You are trying to draw distinctions between how white entertainers in 1962 would dance, as opposed to black entertainers in 1962, and so you have to do tons of research on late ‘50s and ‘60s movement, so everything is created with cultural research. The white children move like the kids I watched on ‘American Bandstand’ – sort of energized bouncy moves, as opposed to the African-American dancers who move in a more earthy way. They’re more grounded on the floor.”
Still there are moments of stillness where the actors’ expressions tell the audience as much as their songs, particularly during “I Know Where I’ve Been,” a song about the long fight for racial equality. Tears streamed down the faces of many of the performers as they sang the last notes of the song, clearly moved by the truth of the message.
The irony that hair spray (the product) is meant to keep our locks stiff and unmoving, while also serving as the namesake commodity in the stirring production “Hairspray” (the musical), is not lost on the audience, who, according to Martino, are routinely out of their seats dancing by the show’s final number.
He says he hopes people walk away wrapped in Tracy Turnblad’s spirit.
“The optimism and the openness that she expresses throughout the show, I hope that reawakens that in each of us. That’s what the show does for me. She’s so optimistic in the face of what is before her, you just have to believe like she does. Tracy says, ‘Why don’t we just dance together? We have tons of differences, but when everyone is in the same room dancing to the same beat, we don’t feel our differences anymore. Despite our size and color and gender, we can just boogie down together.’”