The Brownwood High School Fine Arts Department has done it again.
“It” is another in a series of stage performances that rise above the quality of what you’ll see in many high school theaters.
Their show is “Hairspray the Musical,” an upbeat toe-tapper with a social message about discrimination — racial or otherwise — and set in 1962 Baltimore. It’s based on the 1988 John Waters film “Hairspray,” and tracks the improbable rise of an unpopular high school girl to local stardom on the city’s televised teenage dance show. Her push to feature minority youth on the program every day, instead of just once a month, triggers conflict.
“Hairspray” showcases the abundant talent found at Brownwood High, and gives its students the opportunity to sing and dance their way through a host of original 1960s-style tunes. Even more impressive is the fact that students also built the complex set, and that sophomore Sidney Ivy did the choreography. There is a lot of choreography.
Directorial credit is shared by BHS theater teachers Shannon Lee and Bettis Morelock, and choral teachers Cindy Franklin and Amber Chapleau.
If you read no further than this, please don’t miss one single point: It will be well worth your time and $7 ($5 for children age 3 and over) to be in the audience. You have three more opportunities following the show’s opening night Thursday. The curtain will go up at 7 p.m. today and Saturday, and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
You will be impressed by the talent you’ll see. Not only will you be entertained, but you will also be reminded why “the good old days” weren’t so good for people of color. There’s a similar message about how people who are considered different for reasons other than race are discriminated against, too.
I’m not a movie expert, nor do I play one on TV. But when I looked up the 1988 movie “Hairspray,” and did a double-take. Its IMDB entry states that the cast features Ricki Lake, Sonny Bono, Divine and Debbie Harry.
What happened to John Travolta? I thought Travolta made headlines for taking the role of Edna, the plus-sized mother of our heroine. More research revealed that the “Hairspray” movie I remembered — the one with Travolta — was filmed almost two decades after the lesser-known original.
The 1988 version was not much of a hit as movies go — only $8 million in earnings. But its story was turned into a Broadway musical, which won multiple Tony Awards and earned $200 million. That led to the second movie in 2007, with significant rewrites, and the tradition of casting a male actor as Edna has been honored each time.
Brownwood High followed tradition too, and asked Wyatt Burleson to don a wig, heels and assorted female garments. Wyatt is actually one of three male students playing female roles, and they all perform convincingly. That’s meant as a compliment.
As serious students of theater understand, cross-gender acting is a real test, and it’s routinely taught in university-level courses. And it requires genuine acting for the Brownwood students in those roles, as they are involved in manly extracurricular activities like football, basketball and FFA. It’s a time-honored tradition, and not just for “Hairspray.” Cross-gender casting was common in ancient Greek theater, during the English Renaissance, and in Japanese kabuki theater.
The preview I attended was one of five dress rehearsals this week in front of selected audiences, and it happened to be one for which choir students from Brownwood Middle School were bused over to watch the first act. At intermission, the cast appeared in front of the curtain to discuss their theater experiences with the younger students. The fact was not lost on the high school directors that these very students represent the pool from which cast members for future Brownwood High School musicals will be drawn.
Class was in session.
The middle school students were allowed to ask questions of the cast, and they were good ones. The answers were good as well. Concepts like teamwork, hard work and dedication were the first things mentioned.
Wyatt Burleson said that after initial doubts about becoming Edna, he decided to embrace the role because performing as a woman allows him to make audiences laugh.
Thomas Hodges, as Seaweed, a hip featured dancer on the television show’s “Negro Day,” said playing any character is 10 times more fun when it’s someone you can relate to and meld with.
Shannon Lee told the middle school students that everyone deals with many problems in real life, and the stage offers an opportunity to step away from it all. Theater is a place where people can have fun and “play” in a safe environment. Nevertheless, she said, performances themselves are “serious stuff.”
So too is the message in “Hairspray.” It may have a campy sugar-coating. But that only helps the medicine go down.
Lee also tossed bouquets to the unseen heroes of any show — the crew, and that includes stage directors and sound and lighting technicians. Without them, she said, the actors would find themselves on stage without costumes, without props, without lights, and without sound.
Getting on stage “takes a lot of guts; it takes a lot of discipline,” Lee said. As proof, consider that the cast and crew have been working since the first of November to make this show a success.
In my opinion, they accomplished their goal. But don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.