Until last month, “Jesus Christ Superstar” had been the Flagler Playhouse’s most popular production in 32 years. That lasted all of two months. “Superstar” was the Playhouse’s opening show this season. After the holidays’ “Miracle at the Crossroads,” in blew “Hairspray,” taking the Playhouse’s old church roof with it: virtually every performance sold out in the show’s three-weekend run between Jan. 21 and Feb. 12. Director John Sbordone added a matinee for this Saturday (Feb. 12). “It was sold out the day after we put it up,” he said.
Attendance for “Hairspray”–which, at 40 cast members, is also the largest troupe the Playhouse has ever assembled–will end up exceeding that of “Superstar” by 20 percent. Between the larger cast, the larger audiences and the show’s inherent energy, which brims higher than its biggest pouffes, “Hairspray” introduced a slew of new patrons to the Playhouse and burnished the image of the community theater. “We’re kind of ecstatic about it. Very pleased,” Sbordone said, crediting the show’s success to its appeal as this generation’s “Grease.”
And, as any director would, to his cast.
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Take Laniece Wilson, who commands two of the show’s best numbers and solos as the rhyme-obsessed Motormouth. “As far-fetched as she is there’s something so relatable about her,” Wilson, a veteran of the Playhouse stage, said. “There’s a powerful message of loving yourself, and fighting for what’s right. Motormouth has marched, protested, picketed and now she’s a recruiter for the younger African Americans to get involved. Put simply she’s a powerhouse and I’ve been enjoying portraying her on stage.
“Our audiences have been so wonderful. As a performer you thrive off their energy as they react to yours. Its a never ending circle of putting the energy out there they take it all in and give some back and so forth and so on. I’ve done a good amount of shows and the audiences to this show are by far the most enthusiastic I’ve ever seen.”
Off-stage, Wilson is engaged to Josh Fagundes, who plays, Edna, the role that Divine, one of the great drag queens of the last century, made famous in the show’s original movie version by the magnetic insanity of John Waters. Edna is part Sherman tank, part cuddly bear,with one-liners matching the flamboyance of her wardrobe. Fagundes hadn’t even intended to audition for the role. He saw himself as a couple of other characters until, on what looked–but wasn’t–a whim, Sbordone had him read for Edna. “I decided to be silly with it,” Fagundes said. “Apparently, silly was good.” Very good: he got the part (in all its parts).
If you like the Actors’ Studio, the James Lipton show on Bravo that snubs gossip in favor of rich discussions about acting, you’ll love Fagundes’ description of how he gave birth to Edna, which has to be reproduced here uncut to do it justice:
“I knew there was only one way I could do it: With a full on actor approach. As much as silliness worked for auditions, I had a choice: I could either go for a few big laughs from overblown hysterics that would die away, or I could try and really focus and act like Edna as a woman would. And, since I didn’t have the prosthetics of John Travolta or the voice of Harvey Fierstein [who also played Edna on Broadway], I really couldn’t do silly as effectively as one might hope. So, serious I did. I quite literally tried to picture myself as a fat woman and channel that. And upon channeling that realized fat was a mean word and decided to start saying overweight woman instead.
“If I had to pick, yeah, I’d say I followed the divine interp more than any other, though I’ll admit I dabbled. As far as being Edna, it’s been a blast, and it’s my offstage that actually keeps me in the moment. I find myself picking up mannerisms because of how Edna physically carries herself, such as placing my arms on my stomach and the like. I laugh, because it’s funny that this role sticks with me so, and don’t put stock in it. And dreaming as Edna… honey, everyone wants to hit big time.” (That was in answer to a question about his actual dreams, if Edna had taken them over.) “That said, if you meant more dreaming with myself as her personage, no, not quite, though that fat suit, as well as the training suit, has probably irreparably damaged the way I act, although maybe in a good way. I literally become a woman: I’m frustrated by most seating positions, its awkward to maneuver, and I get hot flashes. Plus, make-up is an absolute you know what to get off. What sick bastard decided eye make-up should be the hardest thing on the planet to remove? I have not left one show without looking like I just came off a different kind of stage, one with a pole, and looking like my name is Karamel or Sparkle or something. Serious, serious blue and silver eye going on, let me tell you. And that’s after the eye make up remover.”
Clearly, Divine and Firestein have their progeny in Fagundes (who couldn’t resist adding, for good reason, that “the real story is my fiancee Laniece Wilson and her amazing voice.”)
The show’s running soundtrack relies heavily on dancers and singers, among them Agata Sokolska, an IB student at Flagler Palm Coast High School and a Sbordone rookie: “Hairspray” was her first play under his direction. She’s better used to working with Ed Koczergo, her drama teacher at FPC. She managed to juggle rehearsals for two plays at the school–she’s in the upcoming and greatly anticipated “To Kill a Mockingbird” and in “13 Past Midnight”–while rehearsing and performing “Hairspray” (and keeping up her grades). “I worked extra hard, tried to stay focused every time I went on stage, trying not to think about the exams I will have to take the next day or journals to write for English class,” she said. She plays Lou Ann, one of the so-called council members in the show. “I learned that being a background singer or dancer is not just singing and dancing, you actually have a part, even if you don’t have a name for your character.”
“This,” Sokolska added, “is my life, and I love it.”
Multiply that by 40 and you get a sense of what “Hairspray”‘s been like. No more encores after this weekend’s three show though, Sbordone said. The Playhouse must prepare for “Waiting in the Wings”–not a lame attempt at a parting pun, but the name of the next show, running March 4-26.
Get your tickets early this time.
The Flagler Playhouse, now in its 32nd season, is located at 301 East Moody Boulevard, two blocks east of U.S. 1 on State Road 100, in Bunnell.