It’s minus-12 outside, with a wind chill factor of minus-20.
I’m pulling into the parking lot just outside Immaculata Hall, located in the building that also houses StFX’s long-running Mount Saint Bernard College, known on the Antigonish campus as “The Mount.”
After a frosty dash inside, I hang up my sturdy winter coat and ditch my winter boots in favour of red Converse sneakers, a bow tie that matches my celery-green short-sleeved shirt, and a MAD Magazine “Alfred E. Neuman For President” button.
I can already hear the music outside Immaculata Hall’s main entrance. That’s no surprise, since the theatrical production holding rehearsals just beyond these doors has over five dozen singers and dancers on deck, with nearly two dozen more people in the house band.
The doors open and the high-energy production numbers quickly cut through the coldest January the Strait area has endured in a few years.
Welcome to Hairspray.
Or, more specifically, let me welcome you to Hairspray. See, I’ve got a history with this show that goes back several years before “Music Of The Night – Antigonish Community Theatre” chose it for the group’s early-2019 production.
Now, I hadn’t seen John Waters’ original 1988 film version of Hairspray, which depicts a fictional campaign to allow full African-American participation on an equally-fictional daily pop-music TV show, not unlike American Bandstand, in early-’60s Baltimore. I wasn’t deliberately avoiding it; I just never got the opportunity to see it, nor did I see the 2002 Broadway musical based on the original Hairspray.
Then, in the summer of 2007, along came an ambitious Hairspray remake with an all-star cast and several peppy songs from the Broadway show. Intrigued, Cathy and I headed to the multiplex and came out with huge smiles on our faces. Relentlessly cheery and stuffed full of toe-tapping production numbers, but also featuring a necessary message about racial diversity and acceptance of all body types, this Hairspray hooked us.
Within a year, we owned a DVD copy of the Hairspray remake, as well as the soundtrack album. When Cathy reached a milestone birthday a few years ago, I got her a clock engraved with the title of our favourite Hairspray song, the cheeky duet “You’re Timeless To Me.” And one of my favourite memories of a 2010 visit to Cape Breton by Cathy’s in-laws from Europe is the sound of our two teenage nieces boisterously singing the show’s opening number, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” in British accents as they watched Hairspray on our DVD player while I set up our barbecue out on the deck.
So when the opportunity came up to audition for the Antigonish production of Hairspray that’s going to hit the stage for 10 shows in February (eight at Immaculata Hall and one each at Port Hawkesbury’s SAERC Auditorium and Guysborough’s Chedabucto Place Performance Centre), Cathy and I deliberated for a grand total of zero seconds before deciding that I should give it a shot.
I had a feeling I would get to work with some talented folks if I got the part. I wasn’t prepared, however, for each rehearsal to feel like the Hairspray soundtrack was coming to life all around me. (In the early stages, it was surreal for me to drift from one rehearsal room to another at Dr. J.H. Gillis Regional High School and have 12-15 different people nailing each of these distinctive, iconic songs.)
I play a comic-relief role in this show, joke-and-novelty-shop owner Wilbur Turnblad, whose daughter Tracy lands a spot on the aforementioned teen dance show and then leads the charge to make it fully integrated. I’m one of only a handful of cast members over the age of 40 (or 30, or 25) in this run of Hairspray, so I’m getting to see a new generation of actors, singers, dancers and musicians unfold before me. “Mind-blowing” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Most of the cast comes from Antigonish and the surrounding area, but I’m not the only one that travels to get here; at least two are from Guysborough County – one from just outside of Canso – and our choreographer makes the trip from the Halifax area.
I didn’t set out to have as much theatre involvement as I did when I left my full-time media work 16 months ago. As I’ve told more than one person, I didn’t seek out theatre; theatre found me.
But I’m glad Music Of The Night and I found each other. And think you’ll be glad you found Hairspray next month, to shine a little light on a nasty winter.