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Towson High goes big in staging musical 'Hairspray'

With more than two hours in the show, only 30 minutes of dialogue, most of the show is singing and dancing.

Grant Davis had no intention of auditioning for Towson High School's spring musical, "Hairspray." But his friend Jamesy Wood prodded him into trying out — where he won the role of Edna Turnblad, mother of the show's star, Tracy.

"That's how I ended up here," he said. Wood landed the role of Tammy, one of Tracy's friends.

Since January, Davis has been working to make his characterization of the Baltimore mother believable. "I think Edna is a no-nonsense kind of woman," said Grant, a senior. "She's going to tell you how it is."

"Edna is a large role to fill," he said.

The musical, "Hairspray," is an adaptation of John Waters' film by the same name. Set in 1962 in Baltimore, the movie follows plump teenager Tracy Turnblad as she pursues stardom as a dancer on a local TV show and rallies against racial segregation.

Grant, who sings in the high school's choir, has the singing down but, he noted, "I am not a dancer. That has been a little challenge," he said.

To prepare for his star turn, Grant has done what the rest of the cast is doing. "Practice, practice, practice," he said. "That's all I could really do for this."

Three and a half months of rehearsals, memorizing lines and learning dance steps are about to end. The curtain goes up on "Hairspray" Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Performances begin at 7 p.m. April 16-18 in the auditorium of Towson High School.

"Hairspray" is a big show with a cast of 54, as well as 30 crew members working behind the scenes and about two dozen student musicians in the orchestra.

There's lots of singing and dancing and a set that recalls Baltimore's iconic Formstone houses.

"The biggest challenge of this show — there's a lot of choreography. Boy, there are a lot of dance numbers in the show," said Director Joe Kimball. He credited Sarah Fast, the show's choreographer, with getting all the actors in step to perform 1960s dance steps to the 1960s music.

"I've always loved to dance," said Daniel Oyefusi, a senior. As Seaweed he gets his chance. "I'm the catlike black boy," he said with a laugh.

Musical Director David Rhen said the score has presented its own challenges with 1960s style rock and the complexities of Broadway music. But he said, students have worked hard to learn the music. "It's an unbelievable time commitment for the kids and the directors," Rhen said.

Rhen estimated that of the two and a half hours of showtime, only about 25 or 30 minutes are dialogue. "That means two hours of singing and dancing and music," he said. He has a rock band serving as the foundation of the orchestra — guitar, bass, drums and synthesizer — along with strings and brass and percussion. "The icing on the cake," he called them.

All of them are dressed in period costume — even Rhen will don a wig while he conducts. "It's going to be a hoot," he said.

There are even special effects, according to Bill Weber, the show's technical director. "Some of them are a little subtle," he said. But not all. He and his crew have made a giant hairspray can that shoots confetti. And he spent this past weekend putting the finishing touches on the scoreboard used at climactic dance-off scene.

The students made the choice to do "Hairspray" as the school's spring musical.

"Many of them said, 'It's a story about us,'" Kimball said.

"We wanted to go all out because it's 'Hairspray' and Baltimore," said Jake Pinckes, the show's spokesman who is playing the heartthrob of the show, Link Larkin.

"There's Baltimore pride in this," said Leo Sarbanes, an eleventh grader who plays Corny Collins.

Pinckes, a senior, said cast members appreciate the musical's Towson connections.

Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead, actor, singer and drag queen, and a Towson High School alumnus, played the original Edna Turnblad in the movie version. Divine grew up in the Towson area, and after his death at 43, was buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery in Towson.

John Waters is a Baltimore resident and graduate of nearby Calvert Hall High School. He also set his dark comedy, "Serial Mom" in Towson in 1994.

"It's kind of like the show is coming home,"Pinckes said, about "Hairspray."

"It's very true to its time," said Mari Weatherington, who plays the lead character, Tracy. Wearing a bouffant wig and plaid skirt, she's doing her best to inhabit her character, who is on stage for all but one scene."I feel like I am Tracy a little bit," Weatherington said. "I totally get her. She gets so excited and caught up in everything."

The student actors and musicians, as well as their adult directors, have put months of work into the show. Auditions were held just before winter break with rehearsals getting underway as soon as school resumed in January. Performances had to be scheduled for April 16-18 after snowstorms forced the cancellations of rehearsals this winter, Weber said.

That meant, however, spring break would fall just before tech week.

Weber said he wasn't worried. "It's amazing what happens in a short time," he said. "A few of us get serious and the rest are like, 'Oh boy!'" he added

"We're ready to go," Rhen said. "It's a big show. It looks like it's going to be fantastic."

"Hairspray" opens Thursday, April 16, followed by shows on Friday, April 17 and Saturday, April 18, all at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the door. Towson High School is located at 69 Cedar Ave.

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