Montclair’s ‘Hairspray’ at Buzz Aldrin Middle School integrates everyone
By GWEN OREL
Just as Ava Scandalios, who plays Tracy Turnblad in Buzz Aldrin’s upcoming production of “Hairspray,” finished the gonzo number “Good Morning Baltimore,” her wig fell off.
That’s what rehearsals are for.
The wigs, as befits a show called “Hairspray,” are things of glory.
Wearing a big wig is one of Niamh Cahill’s favorite parts of her role. Cahill plays Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mother. Cahill, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, also loves playing her best friend’s mother.
Scandalios, 13, is also in eighth grade.
“Hairspray” is set in 1962 Baltimore, and centers around Tracy’s appearance on the local TV program “The Corny Collins Show,” and Tracy’s campaign to integrate the show.
The musical will bow at Buzz Aldrin Middle School on Thursday, March 30, and Friday, March 31, at 7 p.m.
Buzz Aldrin’s policy is to include everyone who auditions, said director Karen-Ann Kaelin-Panico. Kids also built the set and work as crew. Overall, about 120 students are involved in the show, said Kaelin-Panico. Brian Lacivita, who teaches broadcasting and entrepreneurship, oversees the crew that works with the 16 mics and floor mics.
Music Director Taylor Mandel works on getting all the singers together, which can be difficult with such a large ensemble. Mandel said he has to remind the altos not to accidentally sing the soprano part.
The choreography, which includes period dances such as the “The Madison” and the “Dirty Boogie,” is by Buzz Aldrin Dance Teacher Zetta Cool. Cool said she attended the school-formerly-known-as-Mount-Hebron (its name was changed to Buzz Aldrin last fall) as a child.
The show is full of dance, Cool said. The children are at different levels of experience, and maturity, both physically and emotionally. She tries to keep the experience “upbeat and fun.”
Some of the children have never been onstage before. Some are Cool’s dance students. Some, like Scandalios, who has been in the school play every year, are what Kaelin-Panico calls “rock stars.”
At the rehearsal on Monday, the cast were clearly energetic.
“I hear talking,” said the director, before a number. “Zip them. Zip zip zip.” There might need to be an adult backstage, she said.
The backdrop for the Corny Collins show didn’t make it all the way down, hovering about eight feet from the floor.
Next time the student working the drop does it, he’ll get it right.
That’s what rehearsals are for.
LOOKING IN GRANDMA’S CLOSET
The show takes place in a time long before its cast, and some of their parents, were born.
Kaelin-Panico wanted to bring the show into the present a bit by including elements that deal with diversity, not just
racial integration. Some boards, or set pieces, show that, she said.
“The kids are seeing protests, so it’s educational,” she said.
The cast were responsible for their own costumes, subject to approval and tweaking and were told to look in Grandma’s closet, said the director. Some of the cast also looked in Grandma’s closet of experience.
Scandalios said she had learned about segregation in school.
She, like her friends, had also watched the 1988 movie on which the 2002 musical is based.
Stasia Mitchell, who plays Motormouth Maybelle, an African-American record store owner, said she talked to her parents, who were born in the ’60s, and her grandparents, who lived through integration. She also “tried to think what I would do in that situation. If I were African-American, which I am, and had this problem where I couldn’t do things I wanted to do, how would I fight to integrate?”
For eighth-grader Zair White, who plays Maybelle’s son Seaweed, relating was easier because, he said, “I have a lot of family from the south, older people like my grandparents, who are from Virginia.” Relating to a black man trying to find his way in society was not hard for him, he said.
This is the first time the 14-year-old has performed in a school play, though he took some acting classes in Abu Dhabi, where he lived for a year, and also some improv classes in New York City.
“It’s amazing we can be in a play that’s so diverse in so many different ways,” Cahill said.
Learning the lines has been a little scary, and putting everything together has been challenging. Sometimes coming to rehearsal after a tiring day at school is its own challenge.
But the four leads’ faces became animated when asked what they loved doing in the show.
“Big Dollhouse,” set in a jail after the girls are arrested for a protest, is a particular favorite.
“The way we dance, it shows all our personalities come out in jail.” Mitchell said. “It’s not just the people from the protest but the council from the Corny Collins show who were just there too. How we deal with it and other people, it shows our emotions.”
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Based on the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters
Mount Hebron Auditorium, Buzz Aldrin Middle School
173 Bellevue Ave.
March 30 and 31, 7 p.m.