A cast of 48 energetic students has been working feverishly to put their own special finishing touches on the West Hartford Summer Arts Festival production of "Hairspray," which will open this Thursday at Hall High School.
Sara Demos Avery, now in her third year as theater program's artistic director, is excited to be bringing a "big show, with a big cast" to the stage this summer. "It's amazing how much music there is," Avery said.
"This is a very different show; we usually do older stuff," she said. Over the past two years, the kids kept suggesting "Hairspray," and Avery decided to go for it this year.
"Hairspray," takes place in the segregated world of 1960s Baltimore, and focuses on the quest of "loveable plus-size heroine" Tracy Turnblad, a passionate dancer who wins a spot on the local TV dance show, "The Corny Collins Show."
Turnblad turns her passion for dance into a quest to change the world one step at a time, overcoming prejudices of race and body size to integrate the TV show and find love – with every strand of her larger-than-life hair remaining perfectly coiffed throughout.
Shelby Davis, a 2012 graduate of Newington High School who will be a theater major at St. Michael's College in Vermont beginning this fall, plays the plucky Turnblad with what she calls "a fun, warm, and welcoming presence on stage." This is Davis' second time in the role, having starred in the Newington High School production just a few months ago.
Davis said she's bringing a bit of a different spin to the role this time, "pulling out different aspects of Tracy."
Thomas Doelger, a rising junior at , plays Turnblad's love interest, Link Larkin, the character played by Zac Efron in the 2007 movie version of the show. In his second year performing with the Summer Arts Festival, Doelger said he is "very grateful, pleased, and excited" about the role.
Doelger said he's not really "a swaggy Elvis-esque person" like his character, but believes he brings to the role "an insight into how you should live – just be yourself."
As Edna Turnblad, Dean Marino may have the most difficult job – playing a woman. Edna is typically played by men in drag, and Marino seems up to the challenge.
He said he's spent a lot of time researching live versions of the show online, seeing how others have taken on the role.
"I've also been watching women walk," said Marino, who has been outfitted with a pair of size 14 heels for several scenes. "I have to dance in them! I also have to wear tap shoes, slippers, and a bra with rice in it," he said, laughing. He also wears four different wigs.
Marino, a rising senior at and starred as Beast in the school's production of "" last spring, said he is honored to have this role in his first season with SAF. "This is the most interesting of all the roles I've played," he said.
graduate Kerri Alexander, a Bloomfield resident who just finished her second year as a music and arts administration major at Wagner College in New York, is spending her third summer with SAF.
"This is one of my favorite shows of all time," said Alexander, who plays Motormouth Maybelle. She's a big fan of those who have played the role on Broadway and in the movie, although she said her voice is not as "gravelly and raw."
"I've tried to put a little of my roots in jazz into the role. It's a jazzier and lighter Motormouth," Alexander said.
The Summer Arts Festival is now in its 36th year, with renowned executive producer Haig Shahverdian, its founder, still at the helm even though he has now retired from West Hartford Public Schools.
The SAF started as just a West Hartford program, but now includes participants from other area towns, including Avon, Farmington, Granby, Newington, Windsor, and Bloomfield. Participants range in age from 14-23. (A cast list is attached as a PDF.)
Artistic Director Avery, who teaches at Northwest Catholic during the school year, and her team of Kate Morran (choreographer) and Emmitt Drake (music director) have been working long hours for the past several weeks, with rehearsals Monday through Friday from 6 to 10 p.m., plus some weekends. There's also a large crew of students, led by professionals, handling the production aspects like lighting, scenery, and costumes.
Avery's husband is in the 20-piece orchestra, and their 3-year-old son Charlie has attended most of the rehearsals, watched over by a babysitter. The family feel of the show took on a new dimension when Avery's brother passed away just four days before rehearsals started. She has dedicated the show to his memory.
"Doing this show is helping me cope. It's a beautiful show about people doing the right thing, standing up for what they believe, which is what my brother did," Avery said.
"This is a very in-your-face production, and the sheer energy is amazing. People won't be able to escape without smiling," Avery said. She said it's pretty much a family friendly show, with a great moral and great lesson.
"Hairspray" will be on stage at Hall High School on July 26, 27, and 28, at 7:30 p.m. The box office will also be open Tuesday and Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and seating is general admission. For more information, call 860-561-8160.
The Summer Arts Festival is a joint venture, sponsored by the West Hartford Department of Human and Leisure Services and the Board of Education.