‘Hairspray’ shaping up nicely at KHS


Make way for “Hairspray,” the upcoming spring musical at Kearny High School, opening on St. Patrick’s Day.

And while the production, based on the 2003 Tony Award-winning Broadway show has no discernable Irish themes, it does have a book by two Irish-American writers, Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan.

The story centers on Tracy Turnblad, who aspires to be a dancer on a TV variety program, “The Corny Collins Show,” and who, despite having a not-so-classic figure, manages to break the show’s “code,” not only by getting on the program but also by getting management to integrate it.

It’s modeled after a real-life ‘50s TV variety show (The Buddy Deane Show) featuring teen dancers that was taken off the air in 1964 because it was unable to integrate black and white dancers.

Interestingly, the theme of inclusion has an eerie contemporary parallel to an Irish-flavored event, with the organizers of New York City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade having announced they will permit an Irish lesbian/gay contingent to march this year, prompting Mayor Bill DiBlasio to end a 2-year boycott of the parade.

(As far as the Kearny production is concerned, though, this connection inferred by this reporter appears to be totally coincidental, but interesting, nonetheless.)

Now, back to “Hairspray.”

Milly Gonzalez, serving as director and choreographer, has got her hands full, with a cast of 45 aided and abetted by a 13-member crew in a demanding show where “the set itself is just as important” as the players who strut their way through.

Set changes happen after virtually every scene of dialogue and song,” Gonzalez explained, so to achieve a seamless transition of the action, the tech crew – in tandem with the 23-member ensemble of dancers – spin and dress a rotating stage platform to set each succeeding scene.

“It’s a big feat,” she said. A daunting task, indeed, even for Gonzalez who is choreographing her seventh KHS show but who, for the first time, is also being called on to direct.

“I’m now recognizing the talent of my predecessors,” she said. “I know I’ve got big feet to fill.”

That’s why, at the same time, Gonzalez is thankful and grateful for the able assistance she’s getting from co-musical director Edward Gargiulo, who will be conducting the pit orchestra of KHS students and local professionals; sound designer David Caravella; lighting and set designer John Bernardcyzk; and producer/business manager Kathleen Astrella.

Although this production marks the debut of “Hairspray” on the KHS stage, it clearly resonated among student thespians.

“It’s popular among our students,” Gonzalez said. So popular in fact, “This was the first year we had to turn away students at auditions,” she noted.

Still, there were challenges to face, she said.

Scheduling of rehearsals, for example, presented logistical issues, Gonzalez said, since many of the students are involved in other extracurricular activities.

Then, too, there was the experience factor. “We only have six seniors in this show; the rest are underclassmen,” she said, “and a lot of the kids are first-time musical performers.” So students unfamiliar with acting technique were faced with a crash course in stage performance, along with learning ‘50s-style song and dance numbers and downtown R&B.

But Gonzalez credited everyone with buckling down to the task at hand. “We began rehearsing the second week of January,” she said, “and we’ve been at it five days a week, three hours a day.”

And audiences will not be disappointed in the results, she said. Particularly those in lead roles.

In the role of Tracy, for example, is senior Abigail Stokes, who was seen as part of the ensemble in the KHS production of “Cats” two years ago.

Abigail, who performs with the Ridgewood Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, is adjusting from being a natural operatic soprano to playing the role of a mezzo soprano. “It’s the first time she’s had to belt out,” observed Gonzalez.

Then there’s junior Gustavo Lima, who is portraying Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mom, a role originated in the Broadway production by Harvey Fierstein and, in the 2007 film by John Travolta.

“We had four boys audition for the role,” Gonzalez said. “There was no question about Gustavo doing it. He’s fearless, charismatic.” A native of Brazil who has been in the U.S. only three years, Gustavo has “mastered” this role, she said.

Look for sophomore Sasha Lopes in the role of the villain, Velma Von Tussle, producer of The Corny Collins show, whose character humiliates Tracy to in hopes of giving her daughter an edge in winning the competition. Sasha, who played Daniella in last year’s KHS production of “In the Heights,” is a high honors student who participates in a regional private soccer league.

And there’s junior Cesar Fernandez as Link Larkin, the “heartthrob” on the variety show who captures Tracy’s affections. “It’s his first musical,” Gonzalez said. “He’s doing a phenomenal job and he’s a great dancer.”

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