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Hairspray celebrates diversity with a big heart and even bigger hair

Jenny Neumann as Tracy Turnblad gets ready to backcomb.

Big themes, big personalities and big hair need a big run -- so Hairspray, running at the Vancouver Arts Club, is opening May 12 and is running till July 10 at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.

Starting life as a John Waters' non-musical film in 1988, starring Ricky Lake and Divine as her mother, Hairspray told the story of Tracy Turnblad, the pleasantly plump and enthusiastic teen whose dreamed of dancing on a local television teen variety show. It was bubbly fun with an undercurrent of  important theme. Based in Baltimore in 1962, integration was at the fore and Hairspray sends the message that race, gender or size has nothing to do with a person’s capabilities or value.

For Jenny Neumann, playing Tracy Turnblad, it's the largest role she’s achieved professionally to date. “(Hairspray's) not just about integration. It’s about acceptance for everyone.”

The musical premiered in Seattle in 2002 with Harvey Fierstein as mom Edna and Marissa Jane Winokur (host of Dance Your Ass Off) as Tracy. The hugely successful production went on to receive eight out of 13 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The story was also a highly-successful movie musical in 2007, starting Nikki Blonsky as Tracy and John Travolta as her mother. Breaking the record for sales for opening weekend for a movie musical, it became the fourth largest grossing musical film in history.

In the Art Club version, well-loved comedic actor Jay Brazeau plays Edna, prompting Neumann to exclaim: “Making a connection has been lovely. Having done the show before (he was Edna in a Toronto production in 2004 to great acclaim), he knows the play really well.”

As a newcomer, Neumann feels supported by the cast, which she calls "just wonderful".

“I’m really excited but it is a bit scary," she said on the phone. "It’s nice to have other people to share this with.”

Neumann, who graduated from Capilano College’s musical theatre program, grew up in a very musical family. “My grandmother was a professional singer and my cousin is an opera singer,” she said. “We used to sing at family gatherings -- something I did not enjoy as a teenager."

Growing up, she was the dancer in the family and that triple-threat talent of acting, singing and dance is what landed her the lead in this musical.

Building a character on two widely-recognized actors who came before her in the movies doesn't seem to intimidate Neumann. Rather, she draws upon previous incarnations of Hairspray to build her character

"I’ve used a bit of Ricki Lake, a bit of Bronski, and then I do me," Neumann explained. “ I’m a bit more Ricki Lake -- more spunky. She has a quick wit and doesn’t just smile and take it when people are being mean. She gives it right back.”

For Neumann, who was born in 1985, playing a character based in the sixties has required some research. To grasp the long history of race relations in the U.S., Neumann and the cast watched documentary film Prom Night in Mississippi, which chronicles the first integrated prom night, initiated by actor Morgan Freeman. "This was in 2008," she said. "It’s crazy to think that this was such an issue, at so late a date. It’s something that the cast has talked about a lot,” she said.

“This musical is really special," Neumann enthused. “You can’t help but hum the songs. It’s a fun show with a lot of heart!"

Arts Club Theatre Company presents the musical Hairspray at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville Street at 12th Avenue) from May 12  to July 10. Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday–Saturday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $29 to $63, inclusive of taxes and fees. Call the Arts Club Box Office at 604-687-1644 or visit artsclub.com.

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