A big show with big heart: State College Community Theatre’s ‘Hairspray’ champions hard work

The cast of State College Community Theatre’s production of “Hairspray” pose in front of Baby’s Burgers and Shakes. The show is set in 1960s Baltimore.
The cast of State College Community Theatre’s production of “Hairspray” pose in front of Baby’s Burgers and Shakes. The show is set in 1960s Baltimore. Photo provided

State College Community Theatre’s production of “Hairspray” is about achieving your dreams against all odds, something the talented people who have worked tirelessly on this show can relate to.

“I hope we get to tell a story that is encouraging and relatable to all,” the show’s director, Jonathan Hetler, said. “We want our audiences to dance in their seats and sing along, because it is ‘Hairspray.’ But we also hope everyone will understand that no matter what your obstacle, however big or small, it can be overcome. Our characters are testament to that.”

Studded with laughter and romance, the musical based on the 1988 John Waters film (and inspiring the 2007 film starring John Travolta) celebrates teenage social angst in the early 1960s with sock-hops, teen crushes, doo-wop, true love and big dreams. It’s also a social commentary on the injustices of parts of American society in the 1960s, as friends struggle and triumph with high school bullies, racism and enemies of “big girls with big hair.”

The musical’s original Broadway production opened at the Neil Simon Theatre in 2002, closing in 2009 after winning eight Tony Awards, including for best musical. Since then, “Hairspray” has had national tours, a London West End production, and numerous foreign productions.

The SCCT production is directed by Jonathan Hetler, with choreography by Kat Shondeck, and music direction by Eric M. Brinser.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, the musical focuses on teen Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair and a big heart, who has only one passion — to dance. When she wins a spot on the local TV dance program, “The Corny Collins Show,” she is quickly transformed from outsider into teenage celebrity. Though the show has prejudices toward overweight teens and is staunchly opposed to integration on the dance floor, Tracy beats the odds and makes her dreams come true by vanquishing the program’s reigning princess, transforming her even larger mother, finding true love and racially integrating the TV show’s dancers.

With music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, “Hairspray” will have audience members young and old jumping out of their seats and dancing in the aisles to the beat of hit favorites such as “Good Morning, Baltimore,” “I Can Hear the Bells,” “Welcome to the Sixties,” “I Know Where I’ve Been” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

The production features a cast of new and familiar performers, including Deb Saxe as Tracy Turnblad, Jonathan O’Harrow as Edna Turnblad, Lauren Ritter as Penny Pingleton, Shannon Holliday as Motormouth Maybelle, and Martha Traverse as Velma von Tussle. Traverse has previously performed on Broadway, regional theater and national tours, and recently starred in Fuse Productions’ “The New Normal” at the State Theatre.

According to Hetler, acting was something he had done when he was younger and he wanted to see if he still had it in him. Since 2010, Hetler has performed in five SCCT productions and directed “Legally Blonde.”

“Needless to say, it has given me great opportunities to pursue my art, but more importantly, given me an extended family that has truly shaped me for the better,” he said.

Hetler began working on “Hairspray” in February, when he was interviewed and selected to direct it. Auditions were held at the beginning of September; so once the show was cast, it had to move at a grueling pace.

With 43 cast members and 27 rehearsals to put the entire show together, it may seem like a lot of work for four shows; making one wonder if it’s worth all the sacrifice.

“There is something special about being a part of a unified cause that draws people together,” Hetler said. “One mission, one purpose. It is truly gratifying.”

Asked about the overall concept of this show, Hetler responded with one word. “Progress,” he said. “We may not see immediate change, but we keep trying and striving for something better. In our specific show, it is racial equality, but you can insert any cause. That’s what makes this piece so great. It’s timeless!”