How do you bring Baltimore to Baltimore?
With 10 semi-trailer trucks, 400 pairs of false eyelashes, six yards of feather boa trim, two mechanized rats and a lot of crossed fingers.
The stage production, which launches its national tour tonight at Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre, also requires 40 dozen hot rollers, a "wall of light" containing 655 bulbs - in addition to the 290 regular stage lights - and about 100 wigs, one of which towers a full 22 inches above the actress' head. (Previews begin tonight, the show officially opens Sept. 17 and runs through Sept 21.)
The entire 50-member stage crew knows the details have to be perfect. "I'm excited about the Baltimore crowd because this is their show," says production stage manager Kim Fisk. "I can't wait to hear the reaction when the curtain goes up and the first song the audience hears is 'Good Morning Baltimore.'"
Admittedly, that amps up the pressure. This is the inaugural stop in a nearly 50-city tour, and Hairspray is a hot ticket: Already the 16-performance run essentially is sold out. (To accommodate disappointed fans, a return visit is being planned at a date still to be announced).
The Baltimore Downtown Partnership is promoting a series of events in the musical's honor, including Hairspray dance lessons and a children's workshop on big hair throughout the ages to be held at the Walters Art Museum.
On Monday at the Mechanic, Waters, Hairspray composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman will discuss the show.
As if that weren't enough stress for Fisk and crew, this is a crowd that will spot a flubbed jitterbug or inauthentic use of Formstone a mile off.
Set in 1960s Baltimore, Hairspray tells the story of tubby teen Tracy Turnblad, who wins a handsome hunk, strikes a blow for rotund rights and helps integrate a TV dance program.
Sure, the show is pure wish fulfillment, but it draws on very real Baltimore personalities and history, including the old Buddy Deane Show, which, in the musical, is called the Corny Collins Show.
And you don't recreate history overnight. To be more precise, you recreate it over three nights.
The 10 trucks arrived Friday about 8 a.m., and the stage at the Mechanic gradually filled with scaffolding and burly, bearded guys in green T-shirts. Thick black electrical cables blocked doorways and were coiled snakelike in the striking position. The 655-lamp wall of lights resembled the honeycombed eye of a giant insect.
Fisk figured that the crew would have to work 12-hour days over the weekend to get the set ready for the actors, who are new to Hairspray, too, and under a bit of pressure themselves.
The cast includes 19-year-old Carly Jibson, making her professional debut as Tracy, and Bruce Vilanch in the cross-dressing role of Tracy's laundress mother, Edna Turnblad. (Marissa Jaret Winokur and Harvey Fierstein won Tonys for portraying these characters on Broadway.)
Can't miss a beat
And while Hairspray is not heavy on special effects (unlike, say, Miss Saigon or Phantom of the Opera, in which helicopters swoop offstage or giant chandeliers plummet from overhead) the musical is as precisely timed as an airstrike.
"This a huge wardrobe-and-hair show," Fisk says. "That will be our biggest challenge. In one musical number, 'Welcome to the '60s', Bruce [Vilanch] has just 45 seconds to get offstage, get completely re-dressed and re-wigged, and make it back onstage."
Here's how he does it:
Vilanch, onstage in a faded housedress and with his hair in pin curls, disappears behind a piece of scenery that serves as the facade for Hefty's Hideway, a chi-chi, plus-size store. Backstage, four wardrobe assistants and a hairdresser are waiting to help him. The second the actor is out of the audience's view, he holds out his arms so the assistants can unhook and unzip the frumpy outfit.
Vilanch steps out of the dress, simultaneously slipping the "scuffies" off his feet.
His next costume, a glamour dress trimmed with turquoise feather boas, already is pooled on the floor. The actor steps into the shimmery gown, and the wardrobe assistants pull it up over his torso and arms.
He holds out first his left foot and then his right while one assistant slips on his high-heeled pumps and another whisks away the discarded costume and slippers.
Meanwhile, the hairdresser pins on his elaborate 'do and adjusts the curls while someone else jabs on his earrings and touches up his makeup. And, then, precisely on the beat, Vilanch steps back on stage, a vision of overstated '60s beauty.
The whole costume change takes less time than it took to read this - assuming that all goes well and Vilanch doesn't, say, waste a crucial second by mistakenly putting his right foot forward first instead of his left.
"This show is as choreographed backstage as it is in front of the scenery," Fisk says.
Lights on cue
For a similar reason, Hairspray "is very, very difficult" to light, she says. There are 580 light cues - an average of four per minute - and they are extremely fast and specific. For instance, in 'The Big Dollhouse,' a musical number set in a jail cell, just six words of rapid-fire dialogue involve three separate light cues.
Add to those the cues for scenery. And the cues to the actors. And the music cues. And the automation cues.
And the problem of how to fit 10 actresses and 30 poofy costumes into one 12-foot-by- 18-foot dressing room. And the seemingly endless number of ways that disaster can strike.
No wonder Fisk's fingers are crossed.