It’s that thrilling time again, when Oak Park & River Forest High School mounts their massive annual musical. This year’s production is the lively, feel-good hit that won eight Tony Awards on Broadway in 2002, including Best Musical: Hairspray. 

Adapted from John Waters’ 1988 cult classic comedy film, this high-spirited show features a cast of 112 actors, gobs of show-stopping numbers, flashy ’60s-style dance sequences, and a professional-sounding orchestra featuring 25 musicians who play the catchy score, led by Gabe Schonman. 

The show opened to large, enthusiastic audiences last weekend. There are two performances remaining this coming Friday and Saturday. If you want to feel proud of lots of the kids in our community, come see this good-time musical.

Directed by Michele Bayer, Hairspray began rehearsing two months ago. Besides the enormous cast, there are 50 student stage-crew members who do everything from carpentry to electrical work. Giant rotating set-pieces roll off and on throughout the show.

The plot features a white, wide-eyed, plus-sized teenager named Tracy Turnblad (Lucy Economos) in segregated 1962 Baltimore. She has ratted her hair into a heavily hair-sprayed beehive while dreaming of landing a spot on a local teen TV dance show rather like American Bandstand.

Tracy’s working-class parents, Edna and Wilbur Turnblad, are sweetly played by Aiden Lenhan and Thomas Weinheimer. In a tradition that began 30 years ago, Edna is played in drag just as she was by Divine, Harvey Fierstein, and John Travolta. But Lenhan (though in a “fat suit”) never makes Edna a drag queen caricature. Instead he creates a dignified, loving mother who runs a laundry business out of her home while she struggles with her own issues.

When Tracy, who loves to dance, wins a role on the TV show, she becomes a celebrity overnight. Two large black-and-white (true to the early ’60s period) television screens “broadcast” live from the teen dance program on either side of the stage.

Hairspray captures the coming social upheaval of the 1960s. The Corny Collins Show features only white dancers except for the once-a-month “Negro Day” broadcasts. Tracy becomes a fervent civil rights crusader, organizes a protest and winds up doing jail time.

Velma Von Tussle, a bigoted TV producer played by Maura Pawelko, is determined to make sure whites continue to rule the airwaves. She’s been grooming her bratty, spoiled daughter Amber (Meagan Shrinker) for the top spot on the after-school program.

There is plenty of playful energy among the dozens of characters. Tracy is able to grab the attention of heartthrob Link Larkin (Isaac Schaider), the lead male dancer on the show. Motormouth Maybelle (Ayana Sloan) is a sassy red-hot mama, record store owner, and R&B deejay whose hip son, Seaweed (Spencer Lombardo), falls for Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton, a sheltered white girl (Sydney Meyer). Penny’s racist, stern mother Prudy (Jane Callahan) keeps her daughter housebound as much as possible. Little Inez (Shiri Clay) is Seaweed’s younger sister. Corny Collins (Liam Loughran) is the TV show host. 

This energetic musical also contains timeless messages about the need for racial harmony as well as pleading a strong case against bullying.

Jeffrey G. Kelly’s colorful costumes and Patricia Cheney’s wigs and make-up are especially spot-on and fun in this period piece. Connor Cornelius is the choreographer, and Christopher Scholtens is the tech director and set designer. Patrick Pearson is the instrumental musical director and Meredith McGuire is the vocal music director.

Remaining performances of the sweet, optimistic musical “Hairspray” are at 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 2, and Saturday, March 3, at the OPRF High School Auditorium, 201 N. Scoville, Oak Park. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students and seniors. Purchase online at

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...

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