The spritz heard 'round the world

The Baltimore Sun

Hold on to your pettipants: the world of Formstone and John Waters, of big hair and the Har-De-Har Hut, has invaded Tokyo and Johannesburg.

And the stunned inhabitants may never be the same.

"It was pretty fascinating doing the show in Japan, because the language barrier and the culture barrier was huge," says Jerry O'Boyle, who portrayed the role of Edna Turnblad in the Far East. He will play the same plus-sized matron when the national tour stops at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre this week.

"During the actual show, the audience was very reserved, subdued, with polite smatterings of applause.

"But the curtain calls were amazing. It was like a wall of love was coming at us from thousands of people. At one time, the audience stood in the aisles screaming and clapping for seven solid minutes after we'd left the stage.

"When we left the theater, we'd literally be mobbed. It took us a half hour to go one block, because we were so busy signing autographs."

Hairspray played for three weeks in Tokyo and one week in Osaka in July and August.

A second tour opens in Johannesburg Oct. 28 for an extended run. The president of South Africa is expected to attend the opening (which will inaugurate a new theater) and organizers estimate that the show will continue at least through March. That production currently is in previews.

"The audience at the previews has been mixed racially, and we've been told that's really unusual and amazing," says Matt Lenz, who directed an all-local cast there.

"Apartheid only ended 13 years ago. Black people and white people can sit alongside now, but you don't typically see a lot of black people in South Africa going to the theater."

The warmth with which Hairspray has been embraced comes as a relief to everyone involved with both productions.

Not only is Hairspray a quintessentially American show, it is a quintessentially Baltimore show. Moreover, it doesn't showcase Baltimore as it is today, but Baltimore as it was in the 1960s.

Would the television dance program modeled on the Buddy Deane Show and its resident teenyboppers bewilder the South Africans? What would the Japanese make of Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway, the plus-sized shop for which the rotund teenage Tracy Turnblad becomes the official spokesmodel?

"There were a few cultural glitches," O'Boyle says.

But there also were serendipitous solutions.

For instance, there is no word in Japanese that adequately translates "Balti-morons," a dismissive pun made by the villainous Velma von Tussle.

But the translator hit upon a happy substitute - "Balti-momo." "Momo" is Japanese slang for "fat thighs," according to O'Boyle, and because Velma was referring to Edna and Tracy, the sneer fit perfectly.

"That line always got a huge laugh," O'Boyle says.

Much of Hairspray's charm is its plea for tolerance. And O'Boyle says that the Japanese were particularly responsive to the show's assault on bigotry against plus-sized people.

"In Japan, there's a prejudice against people with certain body types, and there's been a lot about that topic in the media recently," O'Boyle says. "Heavy children are embraced, because it signifies prosperity and a long life, but as they get older, they're expected to slim down.

"So the Japanese audiences at Hairspray were always afraid to laugh at jokes about how heavyset Edna and Tracy were. For instance, in one scene, Edna talks about her dream of running her own laundry.

" 'I thought I would be the biggest thing in brassieres,' she says. Then, looking down at her chest, she adds: 'Be careful what you wish for.'

"That always got a laugh, but we could tell, it was an embarrassed, guilty laugh."

In Johannesburg, Lenz says, the message of racial integration seems to resound the most strongly with the audience.

For instance, members of the American crew were startled to discover that television didn't even arrive in black South Africa until the mid-1970s - 15 years after Hairspray takes place.

The show's protest scene, in which Tracy leads a drive to integrate the fictitious Corny Collins Show, also resonated strongly with the South African audience.

For them, the incident brings to mind the protests of the apartheid era.

In fact, the theater where Hairspray will be performed is in the same complex as the Hector Pieterson Museum. It's named after a 12-year-old murder victim who became the face of a 1976 protest in which police opened fire on a group of unarmed schoolchildren, killing 20 of them.

"In South Africa, the wounds of apartheid are still very fresh," Lenz says. "They're still feeling their growing pains. But this subversive little musical can make a difference by making people laugh at themselves and each other. If Hairspray helps the audience heal at all, I'll feel like we did something important."

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