You’ve got five chances left to see a remarkable stage production in Jerusalem: The Encore! Educational Theater Company’s “Hairspray,” based on John Waters’ 1988 comedy and its subsequent incarnations. This is a show that won’t just tell you, but will actually demonstrate for you, how music and dancing can bring people together.
The action’s set in 1960s Baltimore. Irrepressible Tracy Turnblad auditions for a spot on her favorite teen TV show, overweight but undeterred, naive but principled. The plot sees confrontations between narrow-minded whites and smooth-dancing blacks, between haves and have-nots, between those on the right- and the wrong-side of the tracks. Nobody gets too badly hurt, important lessons about honesty and tolerance, racism and integration are lightly learned, and the good guys win.
In the Waters version, this was heartwarming but hardly earth-shattering stuff. True to the director’s form, his was a slightly bizarre movie and, initially, not a particularly successful one, though it later became a cult favorite and spawned a Broadway musical and a second movie starring John Travolta. Still, you might wonder what relevance or resonance it might possibly have in the capital of Israel, an ocean and half a century away from the world it depicted.
But “Hairspray” Jerusalem comes with a unique curl: No, not that its whites are mainly immigrants — this is an English-language production, after all. But here’s the thing: most of its blacks are immigrants too, Ethiopians, emblems of today’s smooth-dancing have-nots, from the wrong side of Israel’s tracks.
As cast member Amanda Keehn wrote in a Times of Israel blog last month, this production may mark “the first time a Jerusalem community theater company has had a cast made up of Anglo and Ethiopian people, most of us olim. The process has shown me just how powerful the message of ‘Hairspray’ really is. At rehearsals, we all come to sing and dance together. If I have difficulty learning a dance move (and I have much difficulty), and another cast member is also struggling, the color of our skin really does not matter.” (Full disclosure: My daughter played a very minor behind-the-scenes role in the production crew.)
“Hairspray” Jerusalem is not Broadway. I asked the director, Eli Kaplan-Wildmann, after Wednesday’s performance whether anything had gone wrong. “Of course,” he laughed, “lots of things.” But for the audience, to judge by the applause, pretty much everything had gone right. The acting was as hammy and homey as the production demands, the singing was robust, and the live orchestra was warm and slinky, but what was best was watching the black-white integration of the story-line unfolding among the cast before our very eyes.
“‘Hairspray’ talks about people pushing for equality, and those who do all they can to keep anything different out of sight,” Kaplan-Wildmann writes in the program notes. “The plot refers to America’s past, while the story manages to address issues that I see all around me today in Jerusalem, yet never hear discussed. Onstage, Tracy reminds the viewers at home that people with a different body type or skin color or gender presentation are probably having even more fun than the rest of the conformist world, and that they deserve the same attention anyone else would get. As you exit the theatre I hope that you bring Tracy with you into Israel of 2013. And make sure you eat a really big breakfast — we have a lot to do.”
I’m betting the biggest beneficiaries of this production will turn out to be its effervescent cast and crew, who’ve had the joy of realizing that, yes, singing and dancing can indeed bring their disparate backgrounds together, and who’ll end their run immensely empowered by the experience. But for a couple of hours, you can get to share that too, internalize the life lessons, go home humming, and remember to change the world. Don’t miss out. You’ve got five chances left, between March 12 and 21, to grab yourself some “Hairspray.”