FORTVILLE — Lindsey Davis clearly runs a tight ship. Actors prepping to go on stage for rehearsal wait quietly in the wings. Members of the stage crew roll set pieces on and off as needed. Music tracks loop and play again, as the technical staff in the booth works to keep up with Davis’ push to perfect choreography and vocals.
Davis, director of Mt. Vernon High School’s theater program, is charged with guiding 65 students as they present “Hairspray,” the 2003 Tony award-winner for Best Musical, Nov. 17 to 20.
The show, centered in Baltimore in the early 1960s, features Tracy Turnblad as a plump teenager who dreams of becoming a dancer on the Corny Collins Show, a local American Bandstand-type television program, but her weight stands in her way. Fortunately, Tracy’s irrepressible personality and view of the world wins over the other dancers on the show — and eventually host Corny Collins himself.
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Mt. Vernon senior Erica Lohman sat in the audience at a recent rehearsal and took notes on a laptop. The longtime dancer and a member of the company of the Ballet Theatre of Carmel assisted Davis with the choreography. Her favorite dance number, “It’s Hairspray,” comes near the end of the show.
“It’s the culmination of the Corny Collins show,” Lohman said. “It’s so big and over the top. It’s the most important part of the show.”
Lohman feels good about the students’ progress perfecting their moves. With a few days to go before showtime, she looked on a production that had finally reached the stage where everything comes together.
In a show called “Hairspray,” it’s no surprise hairstyles are among the costumers’ biggest challenges. A dedicated wig crew will style and keep track of the more than 30 wigs used for each performance.
Felicity Kratky, a senior, plays Tracy Turnblad. A far cry from the 245 pounds that Nikki Blonsky weighed for the movie version of the musical, Kratky was cast for her vocals rather than her size; in fact, she’ll wear a padded suit to portray plump Tracy Turnblad for the run of the show.
She has been rehearsing in the suit to get used to moving around and dancing in the excess padding. Kratky knows that she will be hot and uncomfortable under the warmth of the stage lights, but she’ll have plenty of water at the ready.
Junior Maggie Brown plays the sheltered Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s sidekick, who, in the show, falls for Seaweed J. Stubbs, an African-American boy from her high school. A veteran of children’s theater and Mt. Vernon theater, Brown is challenged by the character of Penny, whom she finds to be melodramatic.
“I’m not used to playing such a broad and goofy character,” Brown said.
“Hairpray” is all about a can-do attitude, but there is a stronger message as well. Tracy’s visit to in-school detention (for her over-sized hair) introduces her to the group of African-American kids who perform on the Corny Collins Show once a month on “Negro Day.” She bonds with them through shared dance moves and then adopts their fight for civil rights as her own.
Kaylee Johnson-Bradley, a freshman, plays Little Inez, an African-American girl who faces bullying and bigotry when she tries to audition for the Corny Collins show. Johnson-Bradley feels the show couldn’t be more timely.
“It’s like these times with the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s gotten better obviously, but I can feel how my grandmother felt and even my mom,” she said.
Some of the lines — the spewing of hatred toward a fellow classmate, even just in the context of the show — have proven difficult for some of the young actors.
Johnson-Bradley said that cast members whose racist characters deliver harsh words to Little Inez have apologized to her for what their characters say.
“I tell them it’s OK because that’s how those times were,” she said.
Performances are Nov. 17, 18 and 19 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 20 at 2 p.m. at Mt. Vernon High School, 8112 N. 200W, Fortville.
Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for children at mvtheatrehairspray.brownpapertickets.com.
For more information, visit MV Theatre on Facebook.