‘Hairspray’ messages still resonate today


Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 12.28.48 PMELGIN — “Hairspray” is set in the 1960s, but the Elgin Opera House cast feels the show’s themes of acceptance still resonate today.

Miguel Vasquez, who is Hispanic, plays an African-American teen named Seaweed.

“I think a lot of what was happening in terms of civil rights in the ’60s is still happening today. It’s certainly affecting Hispanics today,” Vasquez said. “People think we’re poor or wreckless and assume the worst.”

He said he hopes this show will help audiences understand some of the divides that still exist today.

“Considering I’m actually not black, this story — for me personally — is more of a story of all kinds of racial discrimination,” he said.

Vasquez said he was surprised when he was cast, but he was willing to make it work.

“I hope people don’t see a Hispanic kid playing a black kid and say ‘that’s messed up,’” he said. “For me, though, I think this goes to show that we’re all connected. It doesn’t matter what color we are, we’re all the same.”

Vasquez said the song “Run and Tell That,” typically Seaweed’s only solo song, will be a duo in the Elgin Opera House’s version.

“My friend Kevon (Bailes) will actually be singing it with me, so we have this really cool Hispanic/black guy duo,” Vasquez said.

Director Terry Hale is also eager to bring these themes to the Elgin stage.

“A couple of years ago, someone brought by a picture of members of the Ku Klux Klan in front of the Opera House,” Hale said. “Now we get to do this show here as people are becoming more tolerant. It’s really great.”

Hale said the song “I Know Where I’ve Been” captures that progress. The song is performed by Shahayla Ononaiye, who plays Motormouth Maybelle.

“She just blows the doors off the house (with that song), and the message is exactly right,” Hale said. “We do need to remember where we’ve been and how far we’ve come.”

Cherise Kaechele/Go! Shahayla Ononaiye sings "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" as Motormouth Maybelle.

Cherise Kaechele/Go!
Shahayla Ononaiye sings “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” as Motormouth Maybelle.

In addition to the push for racial equality, “Hairspray” opens up dialogue about body positivity. The lead character is chubby teen Tracy, who has aspirations of being on television. Played by Caitlin O’Brien, Tracy doesn’t see her weight as an obstacle, although TV producers say otherwise.

Tracy Turnblad aspires to join Corny Collins and the Nicest Kids in Town (pictured here) on television.

Cherise Kaechele/Go!
Tracy Turnblad aspires to join Corny Collins and the Nicest Kids in Town (pictured here) on television.

Tracy also tries to help her mother, Edna, accept her size. Blake Rasmussen continues the “Hairspray” tradition of having Edna as a drag role.

“I usually play characters who are really boisterous, but Edna is more scared and self-conscious,” Rasmussen said.

In addition to playing a reserved, mother figure, Rasmussen said it’s been interesting portraying her confidence boosts.

“I’ve definitely had that in my life,” he said, noting that he has days where he feels more self-conscious and days where he feels more confident about his own weight.

Hale said the show reminds audiences not to judge people based on their appearances.

“Hairspray” goes a step further than messages of mere tolerance, though, featuring love stories between couples of different races and sizes.

Penny, played by Madeline Hale, instantly falls for Seaweed despite the objections of Penny’s mother and society as a whole.

Meanwhile, Link, Baltimore’s “budding Elvis,” comes to love Tracy, who’s got several dress sizes on his former girlfriend.

Vasquez said “Hairspray” does a good job of infusing comedy into the more serious topics so everyone can handle it.

Rasmussen said “If you don’t leave laughing, you have no soul.”

Plot differences

Audiences who are familiar with the 1988 or the 2007 movies should expect several differences.

“Hairspray” started as a film written and directed by John Waters in 1988. The movie was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, which cut a few characters and an amusement park setting.

The 2007 movie was adapted from the stage version, again changing several details. The plot differences led to some songs being dropped and a new ending in the more recent film.

The Elgin Opera House’s production is the Broadway version a song and dance spectacle complete with a happy ending.

Hale praised O’Brien and Ononaiye for their doubled efforts. In addition to performing, O’Brien is the show’s choreographer, and Ononaiye is the music director.

“This show is super dance heavy (which can make singing difficult), so the singing just had to come together,” Ononaiye said.

Fortunately, she said, most of the cast has musical theatre experience and had no issues.

Hale also gave props to stage manager Margaret Spence and set designer Beth Wasley.

“Hairspray” runs April 6-28 at the Elgin Opera House, 104 N. Eighth St., Elgin. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with an additional show at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets cost $8-$17.

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