Will Signature’s ‘Hairspray’ lead to a permanent wave of dance on D.C. stages?


Stafford native Ashleigh King, left, Kara Tameika Watkins and Brandi Knox play the Dynamites, “Hairspray’s” answer to the Supremes, in Signature Theatre’s hit production. (Christopher Mueller)

From the first moments, when three go-go window-washers bop their moneymakers across a balcony over the stage, until the last, when the whole cast starts ponying like a rock-and-roll merry-go-round, Signature Theatre’s production of “Hairspray” features some of the funkiest, spunkiest dancing around.

And Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer promises this is just a start. Based on the success of “Hairspray,” more dance-oriented musicals are in the works for the Arlington theater. In fact, Schaeffer says he hopes to open next year’s season with a dance musical.

Schaeffer says his new commitment to musicals that move is not just because, as he puts it, he loves dance, audiences love dance and his theater now has the space for dance after an expansion four years ago.

The chief reason dancing can be featured at Signature is more fundamental than all that: At long last, there are local performers who can bring it.

“Before we’d say, ‘No, we can’t do that, we don’t have the dancers here,’ ” Schaeffer said in a recent interview. “Now it’s like, we can do this.”

While the Washington area boasts a generous number of actors and singers, actor-singer-dancers historically have been harder to find.

When Michael Bobbitt, producing artistic director of Adventure Theatre at Glen Echo Park, moved back here to perform in the mid-1990s after working in New York, he quickly realized his earlier training at the Washington School of Ballet set him apart from the rest of the area’s show-business field. Yet at that time, there wasn’t much of a payoff for his pirouettes.

“There were not that many musicals being done, with real dancing — and by that I mean leaps and turns and kicks — as opposed to movement,” he says. “Then I started choreographing and I was a little frustrated, frankly, by the level of dancing we had in our theater community. But now there’s a new crop of young choreographers coming up and pushing people to do more.”

A big part of the reason to push, he says, is that audiences have higher standards now, schooled to some degree by TV’s “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“The influence of the reality TV craze has bumped up choreography and dancing in musical theater not only in D.C.,” Bobbitt says. “We as choreographers and producers can’t get away with what we used to get away with, which was big smiles and jazz hands. We have to make people move.”

Bobbitt says the key to doing this is calling on a savvy choreographer who can polish the available talent. Veterans in the area of making ’em look good include Ilona Kessell at Olney Theatre and Signature Theatre’s longtime choreographer, Karma Camp. (She and her daughter, Brianne, re-created such vintage group dance-a-longs as the Madison and the Locomotion for “Hairspray.”)

There can be something of a divide between the stars of the show and the dance ensemble. For the leading actor-singer roles, Signature often hires seasoned talent from New York —for instance, it netted the snappy chanteuse Carolyn Cole to play “Hairspray’s” Tracy Turnblad, the corpulent, colorblind misfit who ends up integrating a TV dance show in racially charged Baltimore of the 1960s.

But the economics of casting usually mean that the singer-dancers, considered “supplemental” performers in theaterspeak, are drawn from local auditions. In the past, Karma Camp, like Bobbitt, has found Washington’s crop of hopefuls wanting.

“They have to dance and sing,” Camp says. “You run into a little bit of a problem. But we’re in a better state than we’ve been in in years . . . because it’s becoming such a musical city.”

With musicals more or less regularly on view in such venues as Olney Theatre, Ford’s Theatre, Round House and Adventure Theatre, in addition to Signature, more local performers are finding that dance skills are in demand.

“They say, ‘Hey, we can work here all the time.’ A whole new group of people is moving in,” says Camp.

The opportunities for singer-dancers mean that Stafford native Ashleigh King, a former ballet student with a strong set of pipes, has gone from long-ago “Nutcrackers” to playing one of “Hairspray’s” three Supremes-style Dynamites, belting out the celebratory Motown number “Welcome to the ’60s” with elegant, diva-worthy epaulement.

“I do see there’s a new attention to dance in general,” King says, adding, with a dancer’s cautious optimism, “I’d love to believe that this is forever.”

If it’s not forever, then it sounds like the near future may be a safe bet. Signature’s Schaeffer says some of the dance improvement that has him dreaming big for upcoming productions can be traced back to colleges and universities that have added dance to their offerings for musical theater students.

Others in the theater world agree with Schaeffer’s assessment. Samuel Hope, executive director of the National Associations of Schools of Dance, Music, and Theatre, says that as musical theater programs in institutions of higher education have increased over the past 25 years or so, they have added dance as a means of attracting the best students. “There’s been a slow, steady growth in interest and work in this area,” he says.

Actors’ Equity Association, the actors union, also pointed to improved college training as a force behind the rising numbers of more well-rounded stage professionals.

“It used to be that you could sing or you could dance, but more and more performers are coming in and they can do all of it,” says Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma. “And a lot of this is due to the increase in a lot of strong musical theater schools. The schools are really teaching these students well.”

Both Somma and Schaeffer pointed to the University of Michigan in particular as raising the bar on the musical-theater skill set — it happens to be the alma mater of “Glee’s” Darren Criss, the much-buzzed-about “triple threat” (dancer-singer-actor) who has taken over from Daniel Radcliffe in Broadway’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” But Schaeffer also touted the dance emphasis of nearby programs, such as those at George Mason University and the University of Maryland, among others.

Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va., is where James Hayden Rodriguez polished the skills that landed him the “Hairspray” role of Seaweed, the African American groover who teaches Tracy some standout-sexy hip-rolling moves. The ballet training of Catholic University graduate Patrick Thomas Cragin, who plays pompadoured heartthrob Link Larkin, is clear in his aerial pep.

Then there is Sean-Maurice Lynch of Upper Marlboro, an ensemble dancer in “Hairspray” whose experience crystallizes several of the factors experts cite in why audiences are likely to see more and better dancing in local musicals. Lynch has the college edge: He studied musical theater at Penn State, a program that included four years of ballet. Those classes came in handy in past Signature musicals such as ”Show Boat.”

But to tackle the far greater dance demands of “Hairspray,” he turned to another source of movement tips for aspiring performers: YouTube. Lynch brushed up on go-go moves in his bedroom, combing online video clips for help from James Brown and Smokey Robinson.

Technology has played a crucial role in moving dancing ahead in the theater world, says Hope, the association executive. What cheap flights did for travel, video has done for the visual arts. “Being able to do video inexpensively, it’s sort of like the jet plane here,” he says.

“Young people have an accessibility to the highest-level production values in almost any art form you can mention,” he says. “Oklahoma!” on Broadway is as close as the nearest DVD player.

“Until video was readily available, you could hear it, but you couldn’t actually see it, couldn’t see the virtuosity of the people acting and dancing,” Hope says. “When you can see the full production values that are required, and then you see yourself, that’s a different kind of incentive.”

But once he got past the “Hairspray” audition, Lynch says crucial training came from Camp, known for being able to elevate an initially imprecise and insecure chorus line to a near-razzle-dazzle level. He credits his groovability as one of the hip-swinging window-washers in “Hairspray” to the three-week boot camp run by Camp and her daughter.

Consider it the Camps’ booty camp.

“Hairspray” may depend more than many musicals on the conflicts and harmonies that dancing bodies can express, but that uplift, vicarious thrill and intense feeling it delivers through the dancing can also ripple through any musical that delivers choreographically. And this is what Schaeffer is most excited about in the future dance possibilities he’s contemplating for Signature.

Dancing represents “one more emotion that comes out from a musical,” he says. “The old adage is, when the emotion gets too big for words, that’s when they start singing. So when it gets even bigger, that’s when they start dancing.”

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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