Behind the Curtain with the Turnblads Mary Evan Giles and Jon Kilpatrick
BY SANDY STAGGS
The Greenville Little Theatre transforms into 1962 Baltimore this week as the company embarks on its inaugural presentation of “Hairspray: The Musical.”
Set amidst the racial strife of the civil rights movement, “Hairspray” is about a pretty and plump teenager Tracy Turnblad (played by Mary Evan Giles) who becomes a celebrity overnight (and falls in love) as she leads a campaign to integrate a local TV dance program called “The Corny Collins Show.”
Based on the 1988 John Waters cult-classic campy comedy film with Ricki Lake and Divine, “Hairspray” features music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book.
And for Miss Giles, recent co-star of “Jukebox Heroes” at Centre Stage and “Footloose” at GLT, Tracy, her highest-profile starring role to date, is a young woman close to her heart, as she played this part before when she was just a 17-year-old ingénue at Greenwood Community Theatre.
“I’ve come along way in my performance abilities since then,” she recently told Carolina Curtain Call. “I understand the character and the show’s content better.”
“She’s a larger-than-life person, a big girl physically with big dreams and doesn’t let anyone stand in her way,” says Giles, who wears the musical’s signature bouffant wig and bow, and “comfy” padding, especially in the derriere area.
“Hairspray” is directed by Suzanne McCalla with Musical Direction by Tim St. Clair II and is a high-octane musical with familiar pop and rhythm-and-blues songs like “Good Morning Baltimore,” “Welcome to the 60’s,” “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” but the musical is primarily known for its dance numbers with steps like the mashed potato, the madison and the twist.
Giles, already a veteran in the art of movement, says, “The dancing is incredible for this show,” crediting Kimberlee Ferreira and Michael Cherry (“who’s throwing in the soul” moves) for their expertise. “The choreography in this show is a character unto itself.”
The dynamic cast also features some familiar names to GLT audiences: Christina Yasi, Khristin Stephens, Carter Allen, Cat McWhirter, Kristofer Parker, Ryan Bradburn, John Brigham, and Mary Freeman.
And playing the integral role of Tracy’s mother, Edna, is one of the Upstate’s leading character actors Jon Kilpatrick, who describes “Hairspray” as “a high-energy show and fast-pace right from the first (figurative) gun shot.”
“This is a fun show to work even if you’re not on stage because there is so much happening backstage,” he says, noting that he barely has time to get a drink of water due to his numerous quick costume changes from a muumuu to a stunning sparkling gown for the finale designed by GLT’s resident costume guru Thomas Brooks.
No stranger to drag roles, Kilpatrick recently hammed it up delightfully as the nanny Mrs. Bumbrake in “Peter in the Star Catcher” and he played Dr. Frank-N-Furter (technically a transvestite) in Spartanburg Little Theatre’s “The Rocky Horror Show.”
He is familiar with the original movie and musical and the film and TV incarnations with such big names as John Travolta, Harvey Fierstein and of course, Divine, in this role, but Kilpatrick is determined to make Edna all his own. “I don’t dwell on those iconic portrayals,” he says.
And in transforming into hefty Edna, he wears a full-body fat-suit: “upper body, full arms and full legs down to ankle.”
But despite the low-brow nature of both the musical and the image of Edna herself, Kilpatrick considers her to be “the toughest character I have done in my career to date. It’s really been a struggle for me.”
“It’s just not just a campy musical. Edna is very human and a protective mother. She has the largest arc in the show,” he says. “That’s the hardest part, but the beautiful part of the show.”
“She is a very insecure woman, who used to have these dreams of designing clothes and she has lost some of her drive,” he adds. “She has self-esteem issues and has an awakening. That’s what ‘Welcome to the 60’s’ is all about. She has bought into that hook, line and sinker.”
And it addition to the glitzy production values, the inexhaustible dancers, and a coterie of characters with alliterated names like Penny Pingleton and Motormouth Maybelle, “Hairspray” contains many inspiring themes about racism and body image.
But, for Kilpatrick, the “Soooooooo Big (pun intended) overall theme is equality for everyone.”
“This is a show that should stand up for decades, but one day I hope it is considered dated,” says Kilpatrick. That day will come “when this world and this country understand the nature of inequality and racism . . . when people won’t always have to be reminded that this is still a problem.”
Giles concurs, adding that the takeaway from “Hairspray” is “Don’t judge a book by its cover. We all bleed the same way.”
But most of all, Giles urges audiences to “Come ready to have a good time!”
“Hairspray: The Musical” opens Friday, June 2 and runs Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at Greenville Little Theatre, 444 College St. in Greenville. Call the Box Office for tickets at (864) 233-6238 or visit www.greenvillelittletheatre.org.