‘Hairspray’ is relevant and vibrant

Encore’s production employs Ethiopian actors to highlight the issue of integration.

The cast of ‘Hairspray’ 390 (photo credit: Elle Jones)
The cast of ‘Hairspray’ 390
(photo credit: Elle Jones)
There aren’t many characters more lovable than Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad, the earnest dreamer whose colorblind heart takes on a segregated teen music and dance show in 1962 Baltimore. Turnblad represents the optimism of a new era when white isn’t right and thin isn’t always in. She gives voice to those who have been traditionally sidelined because of their skin color or size, and ushers in a more inclusive America.
Rachel Weisblatt, who plays the curvy, toe-tapping heroine in the Encore! Educational Theater Company’s production in Jerusalem this month, nails Tracy’s spunky spirit when she belts out the feel-good classics “Good Morning Baltimore” and “Welcome to the Sixties.” The 19-year-old’s infectious energy and smile light up the stage. She is a blushing natural whose clear, strong voice and dancing – with an attitude – make it hard to believe this is her first play. But she says this is the part she’s always dreamed of playing.
“As soon as I saw the movie I wanted to be her,” says Weisblatt, who was born in New Jersey, but has lived in Beit Shemesh since she was one.
“I thought, this is me on film... she’s happy, she’s energetic and she believes truly to look at someone’s inside, not just their appearances, which is really important and I also try to do that.”
The American musical of 1960s pop and R&B is based on the 1988 film and took to the stage in 2002, winning eight Tony awards. The film was remade in 2007 to enormous fanfare.
Encore’s passionate production renews the show’s anti-racism message for Israelis today. Partnering with the Malkat Shva Center for Ethiopian Culture in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, the cast includes a handful of Ethiopian Israelis to play most of the African-American teen parts. The diverse roster also includes Americans, Brits, Canadians, Israelis and a Jamaican. Over four months of rehearsals, cast members say they bonded as a group and became like family.
“That’s community theater at its finest,” says Daniel Rottner, 22, who plays the charismatic Corny Collins, host of The Corny Collins Show. “I joined this beautiful cast in making the vision come true.”
Rottner’s jazzy voice and energetic dance moves draw the audience in and put a smile on their faces.
Director Eli Kaplan- Wildmann says the show raises issues that may be more relevant now in Israel than even in the United States.
“Here in Israel obviously the situation is very different from actual segregation, but I think there’s a lot of race issues that we just don’t talk about,” he says.
Working with the Malkat Shva organization, he says, enabled valuable cultural exchanges: The Ethiopian members of the cast taught the others about Ethiopian culture, as they learned about 1960s USA and musical theater.
“It has never happened and won’t happen in the near future again that you have a genuinely diverse performance like this that both speaks to the past and speaks to the future and to the present. It’s just really, really rare to have some piece of theater be so relevant and vibrant.”
Mamei Gabatia, an Ethiopian Israeli who plays one of the African American teens, says the play spoke to her as a message against racism. “Everyone is equal and color doesn’t matter,” she says succinctly.
The 18-year-old also sings in the Malkat Shva choir.
Elle Jones (Dynamtie) says she has seen the Ethiopian cast members gain confidence and comfort in their unfamiliar roles.
“[They’re] really starting to get into it and understand why we’re doing this and the message of the show,” she says.
Jones, 27, is a vibrant and soulful singer who has been a fan of the show for years. She is joyful and maintains a strong sense of rhythm during her performance.
“You can do all of those things that you do in front of your mirror at home and be goofy, but do it on stage,” she says. “This is the show for that.”
The colorful cast displays pure fun and excitement on stage, reinvigorating a loved musical for a new setting.
One of the show’s strongest elements is its fantastic accompanying band, conducted by Jeff Rosenschein. The musicians played their instruments flawlessly, are always on beat and keep up a lively pace.
Jonny Rosen, who plays the incomparable Edna Turnblad, the bountiful homemaker who comes out of her shell thanks to her daughter, has spot-on comedic timing. Joining the ranks of other great men who have donned the fat suit to play Edna, Rosen is hysterical, and captures his character’s insecurities and maternal nature.
“Timeless to Me,” her duet with her husband, Wilbur Turnblad (Aryeh Krasman), is sweet and romantic. The two are light on their feet and well coordinated. I was in stitches when Edna emerges in all her glory during “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” the show’s climax and one of this production’s highlights.
Tovah Rivkah Johnson, who plays the big, blonde and beautiful Motormouth Maybelle, was born in Jamaica. Her beautiful rendition of “I Know Where I’ve Been” is emotional and heartfelt.
Alongside the strong female cast members are some standout male actors as well. Antoine L. Collins is a smooth and handsome Seaweed J. Stubbs. His upbeat rendition of “Run and Tell That,” was one of my favorite songs in the show.
Josh Moss (Link Larkin) plays a confident heartthrob who goes from being Amber Von Tussle’s lapdog to falling for Turnblad and her bold sense of self. The baby-faced Moss is an animated dancer with a true talent for acting.
Stubbs’ sister, Little Inez (Yaffa Tzaga), sings and dances sweetly and is charming on stage.
One of the strongest singers in the show is Flo Low who tackles the racist Velma Von Tussle, producer of The Corny Collins Show. Low is fabulously cruel in her performance of “Miss Baltimore Crabs.”
Her uptight movements and pursed lips express a calculating villain. But she also brings great wit to the role, and shines, along with Rachel Wagner, who plays her stuck-up daughter Amber, in “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now.” The three mother-daughter pairs are especially fearless in this song and dance.
Wagner, 22, and originally from Manchester, is a vivacious dancer and wonderfully expressive, pouting and sulking, and consistently plastering a saccharine smile on her face. She has terrific delivery and comedically complements Low.
Marni Schamroth (Penny Pingleton) and her onstage mother Prudy Pinkleton, played by Cheryl Merovich, are hilarious in the dynamic of the sheltered daughter and controlling mother. Schamroth sports some powerful pipes and always delivers her funny one-liners with a straight face. She seems uninhibited on stage, bringing a vulnerability to the air-headed Penny. It is highly entertaining to watch Merovich fall into her hysterical outbursts.
I thoroughly enjoyed the music and dancing in Encore’s Hairspray, and neither the minor technical errors or any vocal missteps detracted.
And the show goes much deeper for Kaplan-Wildmann.
“Most of the people in the show were not born in Israel but came from very different places... the show is about us.”
Performances in Jerusalem: March 12, 8 p.m., Hirsch Theater, 6 Eliyahu Shama St.; March 16, 8:30 p.m., March 17, 8 p.m., March 21, 5 p.m., 8:30 p.m. Masorati High School, 3 Beitar St.
Entrance NIS 85, students and soldiers NIS 60, groups of 10 or more, NIS 75 each. Reserve online at www.encoreetc.com/order-tickets.