J.J. Buechner says he loved everything about “Hairspray,” and that’s before the 1988 John Waters’ Hollywood film was turned into a smash Broadway musical.
“I loved the original movie when I was a kid, and I was intrigued by the fact that the mother was played by a man,” said Buechner, who plays Edna Turnblad in the musical version of “Hairspray,” opening Friday at the Schenectady Light Opera Company. “I wanted to play that role some day, and I didn’t care if I dressed up for Halloween to do it. Or, if they made a musical about it, that would be my dream role. I just loved it so much.”
Thanks to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Buechner is getting his chance. It was Shaiman and Wittman who put Waters’ story to music and won eight Tonys with it in 2002, including Best Musical. The story of a slightly plump teenager, Tracy Turnblad, and her reclusive and even plumper mother, Edna, “Hairspray” ran for seven years on Broadway. A movie remake in 2007 had John Travolta playing Edna. A transvestite actor named Divine played Edna in the Waters’ movie, while Harvey Fierstein was Edna in the original Broadway production.
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St., Schenectady
WHEN: Through May 20
HOW MUCH: $28-$18
MORE INFO: (877) 350-7378 or www.sloctheater.org
“I’m trying to pay homage to Divine, who played Edna at the very beginning,” said Buechner, a Mohonasen High School and Schenectady County Community College graduate. “Harvey Fierstein was so very interesting doing it on Broadway with that gravelly voice of his, and John Travolta was great in the movie. But for me, the important thing is bringing Divine to my performance. I’m not playing a man in a dress. I’m playing a woman, a mother. It’s not a drag performance, and I’m going to keep that in mind while I pay homage to her.”
For Gazette theater writer Carol King's review of this show, click here.
Edna ‘has a lot of life’
Set in Baltimore in 1962, the film follows Tracy’s pursuit of stardom as a dancer on the “Corny Collins Show,” a dream that puts her in the fight against racial segregation. In the SLOC production, Ashley France plays Tracy, who not only has to fight racism but also must deal with her shy and withdrawn mother.
“Even though Edna is a reclusive character, she still has a lot of life,” said Buechner. “I love her character and her story, and the music really helps bring that out. It was a great story without the music, but the music does really capture your heart and makes the play a very wonderful show. For me, it’s the best.”
Michael Gatzendorfer is directing the SLOC production, and his appreciation for “Hairspray” is just as deep as Buechner’s.
“I’ve always wanted to do something with this show ever since I first saw it,” said Gatzendorfer, a 2003 Ballston Spa graduate who went on to SUNY-Plattsburgh before getting a communications degree from Empire State College. “I know it’s comical, but it also tells a subliminal message about segregation and being able to be yourself. To me, that message is very, very powerful. Above the light and fluffy persona that the show has, it does have a very serious message.”
For Gatzendorfer, finding an actor to play Edna was one of his top priorities.
Right guy for the part
“J.J. gets the comedic aspects of Edna, and in his audition he just really seemed to nail the character and give me what I was looking for right away,” said Gatzendorfer. “He demonstrated to me immediately that he understood Edna, and how she was a shy, timid housewife who liked to stay at home and was afraid to go out in society. He got all that, and he handled the comedy very well.”
Joining Buechner and France on stage are Sean Carter as Corny Collins, Christine Meglino as Penny Pingleton, Lisa Franklin as Velma VonTussle, Emily Louise Franklin as Amber VonTussle, Gary Hoffman as Wilbur Turnblad and Nik Gatzendorfer as Link Larkin. Gregory Theodore Marsh is doing the choreography, and Mary Kozlowski and Doug Peek are the set designers.
“It’s a big cast, and it’s a tremendously difficult show to cast,” said Michael Gatzendorfer. “You need people who can dance, people who have to be a certain age, and people of a certain color. We had about 80 people showing up for auditions and I took around 40. We actually do have a few teenagers, but the majority of the cast are in their 20s. I hate auditions. You get a lot of talented people and you can’t make everyone happy.”
Selected to play Tracy
While Buechner and Gatzendorfer both grew up in the Capital Region, France is a native of Kingston. She earned a degree in music education at The College of Saint Rose in May of 2011, and has performed in the past with the RPI Players, Our Own Productions, Not So Common Players and SLOC.
“Ashley was in the balcony chorus in SLOC’s production of ‘Aida’ last fall, so I knew she could sing,” said Gatzendorfer. “She sings beautifully, but she also has to be able to move. Corny Collins picks her out because of her dancing ability, and she just did an amazing job in the auditions.”