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Worthington High School set to perform 'Hairspray'

A handful of characters from the Worthington High School musical "Hairspray" assembled after a recent rehearsal. Performances of the show are Thursday through Sunday. Shown are (from left) Jessica Arnt as Penny Pingleton; Dillon Pedersen as Corny Collins; Annie Lesnar as Tracy Turnblad; Cheniqua Johnson as Motormouth Maybelle; and Alex Hayenga as Link Larkin.

WORTHINGTON -- An energetic cast of 56 students is primed for this weekend's performances of "Hairspray," the 2013 Worthington High School (WHS) All-School Musical. The musical is well known for its infectious concluding number, "You Can't Stop the Beat."

Another 25 students are on the show's set and technical crews, and 16 more will be heard but not seen in the behind-the-curtains pit orchestra.

"It's so fun to see it all come together and all the hard work pay off," said Sammy Vallega, a WHS freshman involved in his first-ever musical. "I have five lines, and I'm happy about that -- it's a good start."

"Hairspray," with music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, was first produced on Broadway in 2002 to the roaring approval of both critics and audiences. It received eight Tony Awards and ran on Broadway for more than 2,500 performances before closing after more than seven years. A 2007 movie version also met with popular success.

"The movie is one of my favorites," exuded sophomore Annie Lesnar, who portrays the irrepressible and oversized heroine Tracy Turnblad in the WHS version this week. "I love all the singing and dancing."

Set in 1962 Baltimore, "Hairspray" offers light, and at moments even comical, treatment of some heavy issues that marked the U.S. in the 1960s. It tells the tale of how teenage Tracy, an academically challenged and overweight but ebullient girl with a passion for dancing and equality for all, makes her way from obscurity to becoming a "Nicest Kid in Town" on "The Corny Collins Show," her favorite local TV dance program.

In the process, Tracy manages to incur the wrath of prejudiced villainess Velma Von Tussle (played by senior Emma Jirele) and her stuck-up, spoiled daughter (senior Justyce Voss), while also winning the heart of teen heartthrob Link Larkin (portrayed by senior Alex Hayenga) and making inroads in the fight for racial equality along with Seaweed (sophomore Orissa Nitibhon) and Motormouth Maybelle (senior Cheniqua Johnson).

Also featured are seniors Caleb Dirksen, Andrew Fornoff and Dillon Pedersen and sophomore Jessica Arnt -- Fornoff and Dirksen as Tracy's eccentric parents, Wilbur and Edna Turnblad, Pedersen as Corny Collins and Arnt as Tracy's best friend, Penny Pingleton.

"We're the best school to do 'Hairspray' because we have students from everywhere and are one of the most diverse schools in southwest Minnesota," Johnson said.

As Motormouth Maybelle, Johnson shines in two featured numbers -- "Big, Blonde and Beautiful" and "I Know Where I've Been."

"Segregation seems like a big joke from where we stand," Johnson said.

Another Class of 2013'er, Ian Stewart, plays "Sketch," one of the "Nicest Kids in Town."

"'Hairspray' gives a good look into the '60s, which was an interesting and possibly fun time, but also full of turmoil," Stewart said.

This is the seventh WHS musical on which director Jon Loy is putting his stamp, while music director Kerry Johnson is involved for a fourth year.

"In some ways, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for us, because we lost a lot of seniors last year, but I don't think the theater patron will notice that," Loy said. "These kids never cease to amaze me, with their time, talents, gifts and attention to detail.

"They are so driven, and have a willingness to do whatever it takes to make it work."

Loy plunged ahead with "Hairspray" even though it presented a few unique challenges, including a leading lady not afraid to be praised and ridiculed for her plumpness, a somewhat segregated cast and an abundance of choreography.

"It did give us a lot of room for some fresh faces, and we introduce new people to the theater experience through everything we do in the course of the show," Loy said.

During a recent rehearsal, Loy exhorted his student actors thusly: "It's not about race and color, it's all about the beat, the pulse in our community. The pulse of life is something we all have in common, and this show is about life and humanity and what you as teenagers can do to help change the minds of the people who make the decisions. It will be powerful."

Loy credits the Memorial Auditorium staff -- including Jacob Forstein, Eric Harp and Margaret Hurlbut Vosburgh -- with helping make the show a true theatrical experience for the dozens of participating students. Other adults who assisted are Judie Wendt-Johnson (scenic painting), Kris Besel (costumes), and three master carpenters -- Bryan Brandt, Dale Solt and Axel Wass.

"We also had many parents helping out with pre-ticket sales, some costumes and props, and meals for the kids during our long rehearsal days," Loy said. "And my student production assistants, Zach Brandt and Sydney Burns, have been so faithful and helpful through it all."

WHS "Hairspray" auditions took place in late November, with rehearsals running intermittently until the beginning of January, when they progressed to once or twice daily.

"These kids all put in such a great amount of time to make a show like this possible," Loy said. "I hope people will appreciate their hard work."

But for those involved, the work goes hand-in-hand with plenty of good times.

Senior McKenzie Hurley, seen as "Tammy" this weekend, started out as a technical crew assistant as a freshman, then was a homeless person in "Annie" and a cheerleader in last year's "Grease."

"I'm overwhelmed with anticipation for the show's arrival," Hurley said. "The musical has been a huge part of my high school experience every year, and I wouldn't miss it.

"I love hanging out with my friends and I love my costumes," she continued. "There are memories from the musicals I'll take with me and keep forever."

Worthington High School presents "Hairspray" at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Auditorium, 714 13th St., Worthington. All tickets are reserved seating; advanced sales continue today through Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Worthington High School lobby, 1211 Clary St., and will be sold one hour prior to each show at Memorial Auditorium; ISD 518 activity passes are honored for the Sunday show only.