Waco theatergoers can sample the sweet and entertaining side of the stage this weekend with the opening of two productions offering warmth, humor and charm in varying combinations.
At Waco High School’s Richfield Performing Arts Center, it’s the Broadway musical “Hairspray,” a Waco Independent School District/Waco Civic Theatre collaboration that mixes dancing high schoolers, early television, and the civil rights movement in 1960s Baltimore.
At Baylor University’s Theatre 11, it’s “Who Am I This Time?,” the adaptation of two Kurt Vonnegut short stories about love and relationships.
Both plays open Thursday, “Hairspray” for a two-weekend run, “Who Am I This Time?” for a four-performance run.
For “Hairspray” director Aaron Brown, 30, it’s a return to a familiar musical, but on a more manageable level. The Waco company he oversees numbers about 40 students and adults. He had more than 100 in the version he directed while teaching at Glenda Dawson High School in Pearland, before coming to Baylor University for graduate studies.
“I thought, ‘40 — yay, a small show!’ ” he said with a laugh during an interview before a recent rehearsal. “It’s exciting to do this with 40 people. You have more times to interact with the cast. I got to direct and choreograph.”
Brown, a Houston native who studied musical theater at Oklahoma City University, counts “Hairspray” among the shows that hooked him into musicals, a winning combination of 1960s pop music and dancing, humor, gravity-defying hair and a feel-good message about acceptance and tolerance. It’s the second summer for the WISD/Waco Civic Theatre collaboration, following last year’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
Adapted from John Waters’ 1988 film of the same title, “Hairspray” concerns Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad (Lexie Rains), an exuberant fan of “The Corny Collins Show,” a popular television show whose charismatic host (Joey Tamayo) introduces Baltimore teens to the latest dances and songs.
Much to her thrill, and that of best friend, Penny Pingleton (Kaleigh Huser), Turnblad gets a chance to take part on the show, even as her chunky body runs afoul of the visual standards set by show producer — and former beauty show queen — Velma Von Tussle (Kristi Humphreys) and her daughter, Amber (Lily Myatt).
Body image isn’t the only thing keeping some teens off the air. “The Corny Collins Show,” like much of Baltimore in the 1960s, is racially segregated, and black kids, including those who Turnblad shares school detention with, can’t dance with white ones in the show.
She protests, and the resulting hubbub pulls in record store owner and “Corny Collins Show” host of “Negro Day” Motormouth Maybelle (Charity Gaines); Maybelle’s son, Seaweed J. Stubbs (Cameron Dinkins); as well as Turnblad’s parents, Edna (Bill Selby) and Wilbur (Bob Sowder); Tracy’s high school crush, Link Larkin (Nick Atkins); Pingleton’s mom, Prudy (Cathy Hawes); and the Von Tussles.
“I love this show . . . It’s truly joyous and heartwarming, has great music and a message,” Brown said. “Plus the idea of integration and unity is extremely poignant at this time.”
The joint production between school and community theater has resulted in a racially diverse company that features high school and junior high students from Waco and surrounding school districts, Baylor University and McLennan Community College; singles and married adults.
A seven-piece band will provide live accompaniment, and the show’s choreography borrows not only from 1960s pop dances, but various stage and television productions of “Hairspray.”
“We want to make this as lively and bright and outrageous as we can go in a family-friendly way,” said the director. “This show is a freight train. . . . I tell them to breathe at intermission and breathe after you bow.”
Joining Brown on the directorial and organizational side are music director Christie Lujan, assistant choreographer Evelyn Kunch, technical director Cory Garrett, costume designer Geneece Goertzen and stage manager/wig designer K’Lynn Childress.
Action takes place in such varied locales as a television studio, a high school, a city jail, the Turnblad home and the Miss Teenage Hairspray beauty pageant. All the female characters have multiple costumes and — it’s the era of the beehive hairdo, after all — wigs, wigs, wigs.
More than 30 wigs to prepare kept stage manager Childress busy styling and spraying while actors ran lines and songs onstage. “During rehearsals, this place smells like the title,” Brown joked.
Baylor Theatre’s “Who Am I This Time?” works on a much smaller scale with only a cast of eight and two songs. That’s the nature of the June season for the Baylor theater department, which usually stages two productions led by graduates working on their master’s degrees in directing.
This year, however, only had one grad student working on a production, Cooper Sivara, whose “Grand Concourse” ran last weekend. Faculty member DeAnna Toten Beard agreed to step in and lead a second show, in part to give opportunities for more actors as well as a change of pace for audiences.
“We wanted something brighter, more buoyant,” she said.
Toten Beard found that in Aaron Posner’s “Who Am I This Time? (And Other Conundrums of Love),” an adaptation of three short stories from author Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House.” The Baylor production will feature only the first two stories, with Posner’s permission, opting to omit the third, a middle-aged love story.
What audiences will see are “The Long Walk to Forever” and “Who Am I This Time?” The former concerns a soldier, Newt (Griffin DeClaire), who visits his hometown friend Catherine (Megan Buetow) on the eve of her wedding to another man, as they realize their relationship may have been deeper than mere friendship.
“Who Am I This Time?” has Helene (Lily Howard), a newcomer to a small Central Texas town (relocated from the original’s New England village) in 1962, who becomes involved in a community theater production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” whose shy actor in the Marlon Brando role of Stanley Kowalski, Harry Nash (Lucas McCutchen), turns passionate once in character.
Rounding out the cast are Noah Patten (Tom) and Kate (Juliana Zepeda), who help frame the stories and form part of the community theater, joined by community actors Verne (Chase Ellsworth) and Doris (Hanna Hunt).
The challenge for both plays is navigating the tricky territory of sentiment. “We wanted to present simple and kind love stories that didn’t go Hallmark Cards,” Toten Beard said.
To do so, she and her actors add a little quirkiness: ways in which actors play instruments and ‘60s audiovisual technology of slide projector and record player.