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Robert Aubry Davis, from critic to musical star

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It’s a Saturday afternoon, and “Hairspray” is in rehearsal at Signature Theatre. Robert Aubry Davis, the longtime classical music DJ and face of WETA-TV’s arts roundtable “Around Town,” dances gingerly, practicing moves in a mirror.

He is wearing his trademark sweater vest, pinned with the green “S” varsity letter he earned for theatrics back in the day at Springbrook High School in Montgomery County. But in a brazen bit of local celebrity casting, soon he’ll strap on a Size 54 EEE brassiere to play Edna Turnblad — the drag role immortalized by Divine, Harvey Fierstein and John Travolta.

Choreographer Karma Camp is directing traffic during the song “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now.” She approaches Davis and repositions him center stage.

“Really?” Davis asks warily.

“Pressure’s on,” Camp teases.

After a few more minutes fine-tuning the patterns while the chorus croons the bouncy refrain “Stop! Don’t! No! Ooo-ooh-ooh,” it’s lunch break. The elevator going down fills with a dozen impossibly lean, young singer-dancers, plus their cast mate Davis (62, and “the last fat guy on TV,” he claims). Apparently Davis had visited one of the Shirlington eateries with his new buds a few nights earlier — and what, he prods the kids, was the name of that drinking game . . .?

“Oh, no,” one young woman declares to general laughter. “What happens at the Bungalow stays at the Bungalow.”

This is Robert Aubry Davis all the way through the looking glass. For decades he has been one of Washington’s most energetic, omnipresent observers of the arts, prowling galleries and concert halls and theaters, then getting the word out on the air. He lectures and he hosts; he is famously well versed in the political, religious and cultural context of just about any period you care to name. (Like a lot of critics and arts journalists in Washington, I have shared airtime with Davis and can attest to his relentless instant histories.) He generates broadcasts by the acre; each year he is the offstage announcer for the Helen Hayes Awards. You know this face and voice.

But swapping studio lights for footlights, singing-acting-dancing in a conspicuous professional production?

“The last time I exchanged dialogue on stage with another actor was 1969,” Davis says. It took him months to agree to play Edna. And though he’s still not convinced it’s a good idea, like Macbeth, he knows he’s too far in to turn back.

It wasn’t his idea. The gambit was the brainchild of “Hairspray” director and Signature head Eric Schaeffer, who has known Davis since his own pre-Signature days working at WETA.

“Oh, he took some persuading,” Schaeffer says. The obstacles: Davis’s schedule at WETA and XM/Sirius, where he has been since satellite radio’s inception. (He created “Vox,” hosts “Symphony Hall” and “Pops,” and directs programming for the folk-music channel The Village.) Plus continuing the internationally syndicated radio show “Millennium of Music,” which he has hosted for 33 years. And, oh, a slight lack of experience.

Schaeffer wasn’t worried, certainly not about the singing; he didn’t even ask for an audition. “Have you heard Harvey Fierstein?” Schaeffer says of the beyond-raspy star of 2002’s hit Broadway version of the 1988 John Waters movie. “He barks his way through the show.”

“I’m sort of a light, sweet, folky tenor in real life,” Davis muses over a Cobb salad lunch. “You know, depressive Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen — that’s me.”

A particularly big hurdle, Davis figured, would be the dancing — Davis has a chronically bum ankle dating from a hiking mishap. And when he was in junior high, he won second place in a Twist contest, but the teasing from other boys has kept him from dancing ever since. He counts himself lucky that the sit-around-and-smoke hippie era was about to begin; he pulls out a vintage driver’s license of himself as a blissfully bearded longhair. Robert “Shaggy” Davis.

Still, Camp says he’s incredibly game about the choreography, even if she has to resort to civilian shorthand to describe the moves. (“It’s like a hug,” she offers as an example.) Camp has known Davis as long as Schaeffer has. She appreciates his determination, the way he tells her, “I’ll get it. You don’t have to dumb it down for me.”

Davis is plainly not in this just for the gag factor, a novel chance to camp it up in a plus-size dress and drawl the Baltimore “hons.” He is taking pains, he says, to make sure that his portrayal is “not insulting to women” and that the “Hairspray” message of civil rights and human rights doesn’t get marred. (Is a story refresher necessary? Baltimore, 1962, teen dance show, discrimination, comic comeuppance.)

“When you’re a large person and have always been a large person,” he says, “you have a whole different understanding of the universe.”

Schaeffer has used Davis as a walking Wikipedia for the fresh-faced cast, explaining such period references as Metrecal and Debbie Reynolds. Travolta’s o-comes out-oew accent earned praise, so Davis explains why, citing the semiotics professor he had as a lit student at Duke University. (According to Camp, Davis earned instant credibility when the young actors learned he’s a member of the Grammy Foundation board. “Whaaat?” was the impressed response.)

“I’ve so fallen in love with them,” Davis says of the company. He’s almost abashed with admiration about their hard work for low pay. “There’s no money in this game,” he says.

The biggest challenge with Davis? “Getting him to stop talking while we’re working,” Camp says.

Soon it’ll be the critics talking, which makes him nervous. “Welcome to my world,” Camp replied when he asked her to guarantee he would be good. But he’s hardly the whole show, and there are plenty of intriguing aspects to this bazillionth iteration of “Hairspray”: that young cast of locals, the most dancing yet in a Signature musical, the emergence of Camp’s 22-year-old daughter, Brianne, as an assistant choreographer.

Hard not to notice the broadcaster, though. Characteristically, he has a theory about what he’s going through. “Spoken drama is driving a car,” Davis says. “Adding music is flying a plane — it’s a whole new dimension. And adding choreography is going into space. So I’ve had three weeks to become basically an astronaut.”

style@washpost.com

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Hairspray

Nov. 21 through Jan. 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Shirlington. Tickets $63-$87. Call 703-573-7328 or visit signature-theatre.org.

© The Washington Post Company