PAD presents Hairspray: The Musical

Dancing, cross-dressing and Civil Rights Oct. 14 to 30

From left to right: Johanna Elkana-Hale as Tracy Turnblad, Zachary Allen Farmer as Edna Turnblad and Jeffery Matthews as Wilbur Turnblad. Photos by David Kilper/WUSTL Photo Services. Download hires version.

With its poodle skirts, bouffant hairdos and withering irony, John Waters’ Hairspray (1988) feels almost timeless. It could be set at any point after which the 1950s had ceased to be cool.

It is actually set in 1962, the year James Meredith became the first African-American admitted to the University of Mississippi, sparking riots that forced President John F. Kennedy to federalize the Mississippi National Guard.

That historical grounding is at the center of a new staging of Hairspray: The Musical, the 2002 Broadway extravaganza based on Waters’ film, which will be produced next month by Washington University’s Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences.

“There is a much bigger world out there than just what we see on stage,” says director Ron Himes, the Henry E. Hampton Jr. artist-in-residence as well as founder of The Black Rep.

“Waters was certainly trying to address broader issues of racism and sexism,” says Himes. “There’s a strong social commentary amidst all the zaniness.”

Set in suburban Baltimore, Hairspray follows Tracy Turnblad, a “big girl with big dreams and even bigger hair,” who auditions for a spot on The Corny Collins Show, a local teenage dance program. Tracy’s mother, Edna, fears that Tracy will be mocked for her weight, and Tracy is initially rejected by villainous producer Velma von Tussle, whose daughter, Amber, is the show’s reigning queen.

But when Tracy gets detention for a monumental “hair-don’t,” she befriends an African-American classmate, Seaweed J. Stubbs, whose mother, Motormouth Maybelle, co-hosts “Negro Day,” the one day a month The Corny Collins Show isn’t segregated. Newly armed with Seaweed’s fabulous dance moves, Tracy impresses Collins and earns a spot on the show — and begins plotting fuller integration.

“At that time, integration on television was a major issue,” says Himes, who is teaching a related course, “Hairspray and the Henry Hampton Archives,” which explores the play’s social and historical contexts.

(Hampton, a 1961 graduate of Washington University, was director of Eyes on the Prize, the definitive documentary of the Civil Rights Movement. His archives are housed by Washington University Libraries.)

“But the movement was greater than just making sure blacks and whites could dance together on television,” Himes continues. “There were greater sacrifices being made, and greater accomplishments. I wanted to build that world around the play — the world that we don’t see in the play itself.”

Zachary Allen Farmer as Edna Turnblad and Jeffery Matthews as Wilbur Turnblad. Photos by David Kilper/WUSTL Photo Services. Download hires version.

For example, the set design, by Robert Morgan, a senior lecturer in drama, features a gigantic, brightly colored mural depicting significant events from the Civil Rights era. Partially inspired by the work of painter Romare Bearden, the mural serves as symbolic stand-in for the wider African-American community.

“Hopefully when audiences see this production, they’ll enjoy the music and dancing, but they’ll also feel the edge of the social commentary and remember that larger forces were at work,” Himes says.

“There’s the pastel world of the play, and then there’s the real world, which can’t always be drawn in pastels.”

Leading the cast of 36 — which includes both university students and young actors drawn from the community — are Johanna Elkana-Hale as Tracy Turnblad and Zachary Allen Farmer as her mother, Edna (a cross-dressing role made famous by Divine, Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta).

Jeffery Matthews, professor of the practice in performing arts, is Wilbur Turnblad, Tracey’s father. Also starring are Ari Scott and Diamond Skinner as Seaweed and Motormouth Maybelle, with Desiree Thomas as Seaweed’s younger sister, Little Inez.

Megan Lacerenza is Penny Pingleton, Tracy’s best friend. Marisa Coury is Penny’s mother, Prudy. Courtney Brown and Marissa Barnathan are Velma and Amber Von Tussle.

Pete Winfrey is Link Larkin, Amber’s boyfriend and the male lead dancer. Eric Newfeld is Corny Collins. Mike Dowdy is Mr. Pinky, who hires Tracey as spokeswoman for his plus-sized dress shop.

Lighting is by Sean Savoie, production manager and lecturer in the PAD. Music direction, choreography and costume design are respectively by Charles Creath, Millie Garvey and Sarita Fellows, all of whom have worked with Himes previously at The Black Rep.

Performances will take place in Edison Theatre at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14 and 15; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16. Performances will then continue the next two weekends, at 8 p.m. Oct. 21, 22, 28 and 29; and at 2 p.m. Oct. 23 and 30.

In addition, Himes and Nadia Ghasedi, who directs the Henry Hampton Archives, will present pre-show discussions at 7:15 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, and Friday, Oct. 28, in Edison.

Edison Theatre is located in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $30, or $20 for Washington University faculty and staff and $10 for children, students and seniors. Tickets are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and through all MetroTix outlets.

For more information, call (314) 935-6543 or visit

In addition to the regular performances, the PAD will host a special preview for the Washington University community at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13. All tickets are $10 — or half-price for faculty and staff.

Calendar Summary

WHO: Washington University’s Performing Arts Department

WHAT: Hairspray: The Musical. Book by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan. Music by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Directed by Ron Himes.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 14 and 15; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21 and 22; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 28 and 29; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30.

WHERE: Edison Theatre, located in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd.

COST: $30; $20 for Washington University faculty and staff; $10 for children, students and seniors. Available at the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets.

INFORMATION: (314) 935-6543 or