Cheslee Duke — middle school student, softball player, actress extraordinaire — is ready to step into her first starring role for CAST community theater. She is playing the main character in the musical "Hairspray," which will run for one weekend only, starting Thursday at McClellan Theatre in Anniston.
"I saw the movie, and I was like ‘Hey, I can play Tracy.’ The character looks like me and the voice sounds like me, and I was like ‘I want to be her,’" said Duke, who is 12 years old.
The feeling was mutual, said co-director Mike Stedham. "She came in and just blew us away at the audition. She sang ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ like she had sung it on Broadway."
"Tracy" is Tracy Turnblad, the precocious Baltimore teen who is the star of "Hairspray," which started life as a film directed by John Waters and was then made into a Broadway musical.
Turnblad’s confidence helps her land a spot as a regular dancer on the "American Bandstand"-style show "The Corny Collins Show," as well as become a plus-sized model and help lead the fight against 1960s segregation.
"She’s not like the normal save-the-day kind of person," Duke said. "She’s just different — but she finds a way to get past all her obstacles."
The 1960s setting — as well as the title — gives the production a lot of creative license when it comes to colorful costuming. "I’m probably most excited about the hair, because once you put the wig on, it’s like, you become the character," Duke said of her big, flipped, hair. "It’s crazy!"
Chris Colvard plays Tracy’s mother, Edna. The role, which was memorably performed by drag queen Divine in the film and by John Travolta on Broadway, is performed in drag, with naturally comedic results.
Rounding out the cast are Claire Hendrickson as Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton; real-life mother and daughter Cindy and Chloe Cater as mother and daughter Velma and Amber Von Tussle, who are at odds with the Turnblads throughout the show; Dylan Hurst as TV host Corny Collins; and Patrick Jackson as Seaweed J. Stubbs, a fellow classmate and dancer.
Aside from Tracy’s solo "Good Morning Baltimore," the songs include the signature "You Can’t Stop the Beat." "It’s hard not to smile when you hear this music," said Stedham. "It’s hard not to tap your feet when you see the dancing that they do, and it’s impossible not to laugh at some of the jokes."
In the vein of every memorable show, there is an underlying message of history and education that has the power to resonate long after the music stops.
"It’s about a time of racial segregation and a community being separated and one person leading the community into a kind of unity based on their shared love of dancing," Stedham said. "It’s a very uplifting message that is probably as relevant today as it would have been in 1962."
Erin Williams is a freelance writer for The Anniston Star.