“Hairspray” is back at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. It’s easy to see why: The 2009 Good Company Players production was a big hit. Most of the principal cast members and director Fred Bologna are returning for this show, which opens tonight and runs through March 18.
I caught up with Ashley Wilkinson, who is reprising her role as Tracy Turnblad, for an opening-day story in Thursday’s Life section. Here’s the extended interview.
OK, let’s start this out in a fun way. Have you ever awakened on your back in bed after a great night’s sleep, snapped open your eyes and started singing “Good morning, Clovis”? And if you have, did you ever wish you lived in a city with three syllables?
I can’t say that I’ve woken up singing…not gonna lie, I’m not much of a morning person. But I have been known to randomly burst out into song and dance throughout the day…I mean…doesn’t everyone?
You play Tracy Turnblad, the enthusiastic heroine of “Hairspray,” who wants nothing more than to dance. Do you have a lot in common with the character?
Tracy is such a fun character to play, but that’s exactly what she is, a character. I do however share her love for dance. When I was 18 months old my mom put me in dance class, I fell in love, and that love affair has continued on for the past 21 years. I’m so grateful that she put me in dance because I honestly can’t imagine my life without it.
What it has been like coming back to a character more than two years later?
Coming back to the Hairspray cast is a little like coming home, everyone genuinely loves and cares for each other. Last time we all went through so much together that we created this family unit filled with bonds that will last a lifetime. Tracy is a character that will always have a special place in my heart. Playing Tracy taught me so much about myself and she was an escape and a haven when I needed it the most. Coming back two years later I’m in a completely different place in my life and I think that the changes that we’ve made to the character will allow each audience member to personally relate to her as a real person and not just a fun cartoon character to watch on stage.
Tell us a little about how this production of the show will be the same as the 2009 production in terms of major roles — and how it will be different.
Richard Ruth is returning as my mom and I couldn’t be happier about that, it wouldn’t have been the same without him. We have Tori Sasso returning as my best friend Penny Pingleton, through the last run I came to love her like a sister and I couldn’t see myself on stage without her as my Penny. Chente Cervantes is coming back as Seaweed and not only does he do an amazing job onstage but he also choreographed “Run and Tell That” and a lot of the Dynamite choreography. Janet Glaude is back as Motormouth and as always she brings the house down with her amazing talent and I feel so blessed that we can all perform together again. And then we have Peter Allwine who is stepping into the shoes of Corny Collins. Peter always delivers wonderful performances and I’m so glad that after 5 years we finally get to do a show together again. We have many familiar faces returning, and we have many new faces joining us, but each and every one of my cast mates is extremely talented and without them I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.
Has director Fred Bologna made any substantial changes to the staging of the show?
Fred made a few changes this time and I think that everything that we’ve changed is for the better. Nothing is drastically different but there are many things that he wanted to be able to do last time that we weren’t able to do because we ran out of rehearsal time. So luckily we were able to add some extra fun things this time around.
Was the rehearsal process more low-key because of so many returning cast members?
I wouldn’t say that the rehearsal process was more low-key, I would say it was about the same. We have a lot of returning cast members, but we also have a lot of new cast members who had to learn an entirely new show.
Tracy belts out a number of songs each night. What sort of vocal challenges do you face with this show in terms of keeping your voice in shape?
Every song in this show has its own challenges, both with hitting notes…and then dancing while hitting those notes. “You Can’t Stop the Beat” is hands down the most challenging song, not only because it’s so fast, but there are so many words!!! And then we have choreography on top of all that…oh and by the way it’s the LONGEST song in the show, not to mention it’s the finale. Since there are so many songs that I’m a part of in this show making sure that my vocal chords are healthy is immensely important. I load up on Vitamin C, Echinacea, Riccola’s and Throat Coat. Before every show I drink warm water with honey and lemon and make sure that I ALWAYS warm up my voice so that it’s not strained in anyway.
What is your favorite moment of “Hairspray”?
My favorite moment in Hairspray is “I know where I’ve Been.” Singing that song with Janet is the most moving theatrical experience I’ve ever been a part of. Every night I’m literally moved to tears…every single time. The song is so powerful with its message and there are no words to describe Janet’s delivery, you honestly just have to experience it to understand. Being able to share that moment with such a talented woman is an amazing experience.
What do you think the plot of “Hairspray” has to tell us a society today?
I think the story, the morals and the lessons in Hairspray will always be significant. Size, gender and racial equality are always issues that can be improved upon. Acceptance in all areas for all people is something that I hope really hits home with the audience. Our run goes thru February which is Black History Month and personally I feel honored to be telling this story of breaking racial barriers so younger generations can understand. I’m grateful that we live in a time where acceptance is expected, but it wasn’t always that way and remembering where we’ve been and realizing how much farther we need to go is so important.
Anything else you’d like to say?
I would just like to thank Dan Passano for bringing Hairspray back and giving all of us the opportunity to do this awesome show again. I’d also like to thank both Dan and Fred for taking a chance on me two years ago and trusting and believing in me enough to allow me to bring Tracy to life on stage.