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Tuneful 'Hairspray' takes on timeless message

While "Hairspray: The Musical" features infectious tunes, spirited dance numbers and bouffant hairstyles, it doesn't shy away from tackling serious issues such as discrimination and body image.

Craterian Performances' youth theater program, Teen Musical Theater of Oregon, fields its most diverse cast ever as dozens of teens bring a fictionalized version of a real historical drama to life.

In 1960s America, national and local television programs such as "American Bandstand" showcased teenagers dancing to popular music — but many of the shows had a practice of excluding black teens from the audience and dance floor.

Set in 1962 in Baltimore, "Hairspray: The Musical" centers on a plus-size white girl named Tracy Turnblad and black teens who run into barriers as they try to win spots on the local television dance program "The Corny Collins Show." The musical follows Turnblad as she uses her wits, fancy dance steps and newfound friends in a bid to integrate the show.

"Our heroine is so committed to standing up for people who have been left out — including herself," says Cailey McCandless, director and choreographer for TMTO's production. "She's up in arms about the injustices shown to her friends in the black community. She's the kind of person people fall in love with at the start of the show."

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 4-5, and Thursday and Friday, Aug. 10-11, at the Craterian Theater at the Collier Center for the Performing Arts, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. A matinee performance is at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12.

Tickets are $25, $15 for ages 21 and younger, and are available at craterian.org, at the Craterian box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.

From 1957 to 1963, only white teens were allowed to attend weekday broadcasts of the "Buddy Deane Show" — with the exception of one Monday per month when black teens filled the studio, according to Matthew Delmont, a professor of history at Arizona State University and author of "The Nicest Kids in Town," a book about segregation on "American Bandstand."

A student integrationist group challenged the segregated "Buddy Dean Show" by obtaining tickets for both black and white teenagers to attend the show on a day reserved for black teens. After a surprise interracial broadcast, the television station received bomb and arson threats, hate mail and complaints from white parents. The station canceled the show, according to Delmont.

Baltimore native John Waters took that event and gave it a different, uplifting ending for his 1988 film "Hairspray."

The musical version that sprang from the film became a hit, opening on Broadway in 2002 and raking in eight Tony Awards, including best musical and best score.

Stephen McCandless, executive director of Craterian Performances, says Teen Musical Theater of Oregon has long wanted to tackle this musical.

"At TMTO, we've wanted to produce 'Hairspray' since forever, as it ranks as one of our favorite musicals — and with good reason. Its message is important and timeless, but told in the most whimsical way. It's chock-full of tuneful, smile-inducing songs. Its finale alone is worth the price of admission. And we love it that there are so many wonderful parts for our cast members," he says.

The musical has more than 50 principal roles, plus more than 30 ensemble parts.

McCandless says casting for the musical took extra sensitivity because it calls for a plus-sized main character and a racially mixed cast.

Several girls were in the running to play the main character, with Katie Joos winning the role. During weeks of rigorous rehearsals, Joos — like many of the cast members — lost weight. She has been outfitted with padding around the middle to plump up her character.

"The kids have had zero problems inhabiting these characters because it ends up being a celebration of race and different body types," McCandless says. "We went in prepared to have those conversations."

Teen Musical Theater of Oregon had to put out a casting call to interest more black performers.

"Our casting has historically been very homogeneous. We knew we would have to reach beyond our usual kids," McCandless says.

They also tapped older performers to fill some of the roles. Those guest artists have been having conversations with the teens about what it was like to live through the '60s, and how those times compare to today, she says.

McCandless says the teens are embracing the challenge of putting on a show that delves into history while illuminating problems that still linger.

"They see the relevance. They see the connections," she says. "It's inspiring. They're the next generation that will be continuing to have these conversations and will be continuing to make progress. They get it. They are wonderful people. These kids are very talented and they will knock people's socks off. People will be blown away by these kids, and they'll leave feeling energized and enlivened."

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Naomi Medley, left, Chalise Kadin and Aubrey Campbell as The Dynamites, a song-and-dance trio in Teen Musical Theater of Oregon's 'Hairspray.' [Photo by Jim Craven]