HairsprayThe cast of Lansing High School's production of Hairspray. Photo by Bruce Barber

Next Wednesday (March 8th) the Lansing Middle School Auditorium will be transformed to the 1960s when Lansing High School presents its rendition of the musical 'Hairspray'.  Director Cindy Howell says over 100 people are involved in making this production happen, including 40 cast members, around 20 musicians, and many parents and students working behind the scenes.  Howell says the show is controversial, addressing issues from the '60s that are still problems in the 21st century.

"Lansing prides itself on how we treat people and how we think," she says.  "I said to the cast that we need to take a step higher.  We need to think about how we treat people within the cast.  And we need to be ready because people are going to criticize our show and why we did it."

'Hairspray', with book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaimanis, about a teenager's dream to dance on an 'American Bandstand' style television show in the 1960s.  Plump Tracy Turnblad (Julie Bacorn) wins a chance to dance on the 'Buddy Deane Show' and becomes an instant celebrity.  Her dream becomes something of a nightmare when she tries to get a black dancer on the show as well, standing up to prejudices of the day.  The play was based on John Waters' 1899 film Hairspray, and spawned a new movie based on the musical in 2007 and a live television adaptation last year.

"The way the world is right now, we need to talk about these things," Howell says.  "We need to talk about the fact that many years ago there was a man named Marting Luther King, Jr. who started this whole thing about making us think about each other in different ways than we had before.  Well, here we are in 2017 and we're still having the same issues."

'Hairspray' is Howell's 56th show at Lansing.  Some of the hallmarks of a Howell musical are strong performances, and lots of dancing.  This time she has tapped choreographer Sophia Micale, a Lansing high School junior, to create dances for the large cast.  Micale has studied and taught at the Armstrong School of Dance, and choreographed the Middle School production of 'The Addams Family' last year.

"At such a young age she is an amazing choreographer, to not only be able to create these dances, but to work with her peers and get them to do it," Howell says.  "This is as challenging or more-so than some of the tap shows.  Sophia is phenomenal.  She doesn't care that they don't know how to dance -- she shows them how.  They all learn and they all do it.  It's coming along really well.  I'm really impressed with what she's done with them."

Dance rehearsals began January 5th, and have continued three times a week since then.  Twice a week the cast has worked on the songs, and just over a week ago Howell began blocking the show.  Directing inexperienced actors is challenging, but rewarding for Howell.

"This show has been very tricky, because there aren't clear-cut scenes," she explains.  "This show has everybody in it all the time.  They're constantly turning around.  I always work to make sure that everyone in the cast, even if they're in the third row in the back, somewhere within the show they have a shining moment.  Every kid gets something special."

A large thrust stage extension has been added for this production to allow room for the cast to dance in front of an enormous set that includes two turntables and a giant can of hairspray that also revolves.

Howell has used the issues raised in the script as a teaching opportunity with her cast, but notes they will be faced with these issues in the greater community.  She already has.

"We've already had people say, 'Why in the world would you pick that?  There aren't enough black kids in Lansing'," Howell says.  "Well, the point of the show isn't about the black kids.  The point of the show is treating each other the same no matter who you are or what you are.  That's been a big theme.  When you sign the contracts with Music Theatre International, you get a letter that says this show is done in China; its done in Japan -- they don't have differences there in terms of black people or white people or whatever.  If they can do it, so can we."

Howell attributes the good quality of the high school actors performances to an approach that mirrors that of the athletics department, which starts kids in the Town Recreation Department camps, and guides them through modified, junior varsity and varsity sports using a single playing and team philosophy that is built upon year after year.  That makes for very successful varsity teams, and the same approach makes for very engaging musicals.

"You start with Nutcracker when they're in third or fourth grade.  With the boys you give them a sword and let them beat each other," Howell says.  "When we start dancing in middle school, people say to me, 'You're retired.  Why are you doing middle school shows?'  The Middle School shows are key to why our high school shows are this good.  You say to them, "look up.  You have to teach them that.  There's one song in this play where all the girls are in jail.  it's real tricky, because we only have so much space.  You have to make sure your face sticks out so we know who's talking.  We just work on it.  We just do it.  I don't say that it always works, but we try."

It works.  You'll get to judge for yourself next week: performances are March 8th and 9th at 6:30 pm and 10th and 11th at 7:30pm.