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You have to love American musicals.
Only in American musicals can the problem of racism be confronted and solved in little more than two hours. Only in American musicals can a plus-sized girl win out over her blond, thin counterpart. Only in American musicals could an author as decidedly perverse as John Waters (director and author of the film "Mondo Trasho" among others) be deemed as suitable for the grand good time that is "Hairspray."
"Hairspray," which comes to town Friday for a month thanks to the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, hit Broadway in 2002, won eight Tony awards and has only picked up steam from there. Wildly popular national and international tours followed and then the subsequent film version in 2007 (which featured a star-studded cast, including John Travolta in drag) cemented the status of "Hairspray" as a modern iconic musical.
"Hairspray" has a direct connection to Arkansas as the fictional dance host Corny Collins is based on the real-life Winston "Buddy" Deane, who started out in radio in Little Rock before eventually becoming one of the early rock disc jockeys and host of a popular teen dance show in Waters' hometown of Baltimore in the late 1950s. While the musical celebrates the successful integration of Corny Collins show, "Buddy" Deane's show wasn't integrated and was eventually pulled from the air. Deane, who had a cameo in the 1988 "Hairspray" movie, died in Pine Bluff in 2003.
The Rep's production, which is directed and choreographed by Michael Barnard (the producing artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre) and Robert Kolby Harper, features a number of cast members who happen to have "Hairspray" on their resume. Tommaso Antico, who plays the heartthrob Link Larkin, had the opportunity to be in "Hairspray" on an unusual stage.
"I did the show for six months on a cruise ship," says Antico. "The Oasis of the Seas. It was the biggest cruise ship at the time but then they build another ship that was bigger. We did the Vegas version of the show, only an hour and a half long. It was my first time to even be on board a cruise ship. It took me a while to get used to it."
Lillian Castillo, as the heroine Tracy Turnblad, comes back to the Rep after a non-English speaking turn as the maid in "Glorious!" Castillo, like all her fellow cast members, sees the musical as great fun. They all say that even though the show has them dancing and singing from beginning to end that they find themselves energized and not exhausted by the end.
"It's a fun show but it has a great message," says Castillo. "Our director compares it to this piece of candy that has this crunch nugget inside. It has something to say to you that's meaty and worthwhile."
Arkansas Repertory Theatre
Friday, April 8, through Sunday, May 8, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Preview performances on Wednesday and Thursday, April 6-7, will follow a pre-show discussion with directors Michael Barnard and Robert Kolby Harper at 6:15 p.m.