Co-Op Takes "Hairspray" To New Heights

Lucy Gellman | March 13th, 2023

Co-Op Takes

Co-Op High School  |  Culture & Community  |  Education & Youth  |  Music  |  Arts & Culture  |  Musical Theater  |  New Haven Public Schools  |  Theater  |  Arts & Anti-racism

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Top: Ali'jah Steed, who is a sophomore, as Seaweed. Bottom: Amanda Sykes-Quirk, Luciana Gardner, and Payton Goodwin. Lucy Gellman Photos.

La’riah Norman rediscovered their inner child—and a rafter-raising voice bigger than their body. Kayleigh Householder landed her longtime dream role, and learned to speak truth to power along the way. Selena Zamora and Matthew Judd got the chance to be in the spotlight one last time, after Covid sidelined their high school theater debut freshman year. 

They are all characters in Hairspray, running Tuesday through Thursday at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in New Haven. Exactly three years after Covid shut down a production of RENT—and one after Sister Act rocked the school back to life—it has put both camp and a call for social justice center stage, with the dance moves and four-part harmonies to match. 

It runs March 14 through 16 at the school, located at 177 College St. in downtown New Haven. Tickets are $10 for students and $15 for adults; more information is available here.

“We wanted to do something that was joyful and fun and that we could get behind,” said director Rob Esposito, a veteran theater teacher at the school. “We lost some heavy hitters last year, and now we’re back.”  

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Joseph Barrett as Link. Kayleigh Householder and Lillian Paluzzi are to his right.

It’s a choice that feels at once gutsy and totally natural. For years, Esposito dreamed about producing Hairspray, but wondered whether the musical was the right fit for Co-Op. Set in early 1960s Baltimore, it follows Tracy Turnblad (Kayleigh Householder), a white, chubby high school student who dreams of dancing on the hairspray-fueled “Corny Collins Show” with heartthrob Link Larkin (Joseph Barrett) and petite and powdered archnemesis Amber Von Tussle (Payton Goodwin). While she watches it every day after school, her favorite episodes take place on a monthly “Negro Day,” helmed by Motormouth Maybelle (Samaia Brantley) and an all-Black cast of dancers. 

Tracy has the moves, which she perfects in front of a black-and-white t.v. set with her friend Penny Pingleson (a sweet and punchy Lillian Palluzzi) after school. She has a vision for the future, which includes integrating the Corny Collins Show, and ending de facto segregation across the city. She has the style, a two-toned bouffant flip that makes her ready for prime time. And she has the friends, including Seaweed (Ali’jah Steed), his sister Little Inez (La’riah Norman), and a group of Black teenagers who become her friends and confidants. 

There’s only one thing standing in their way: the green-eyed producer Velma Von Tussle (a deliciously villainous Marangelie Colón), whose tapered, emerald dress and platinum-white hair can't hide steaming pile of racist garbage on her insides. It turns out that she dislikes a lot of things: fat people, Black people, Jewish people, “Negro Day,” and perhaps most of all, the very concept of integration. She is the Maleficent-level storybook villain, except this time, her dark side is white supremacy. 

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Top: Selena Zamora as Edna Turnblad and Matthew Judd as Wilbur Turnblad. Bottom: Band teacher Matthew Chasen with the pit during a rehearsal last Friday. 

Strike up the band and cue the drama, which takes place between a high school, t.v. studio, Black-owned record store (props to Brantley, whose Motormouth Maybelle is a blessing to the show) and various homes across the city. From the first note to the last bow, viewers can strap themselves in for overbearing mothers (Colón, as well as Selena Zamora as Edna Turnblad and teacher Vanessa Zeskand as Prudy Pingleson), dazzling choreography, room-soaking vocals and a few conversations that sound jarringly close to the present. A nod also to Sydney O’Connor, whose Corny manages to be understated and suave at the same time.

There’s so much of high school here: heightened and awkward sexual tension, ill-fated love triangles, rising political consciousness, contact sports (shout out to a side-splittingly funny Max Hoffman, who channels Glee's Sue Sylvester) and self-discovery that can feel strange and silly even as its gravitas sets in. It is intensely campy, cutting through a thick, heavy generational tug-of-war with dramatic wigs, well-timed dad jokes (we see you, Matthew Judd) confetti cannons and of course, thick clouds of hairspray that spritz over the stage in luminous, wet plumes.  

And yet, Esposito said, he wanted to get the play right in a way that many directors don’t. Hairspray has Black characters, but many remain largely in the background as an adorable, bright-eyed anti-racist white girl gives her version of the civil rights era. There’s no way to do the play without racially specific casting, dated and coded language (the word “Negro” appears 13 times in the script; the word “colored” four times), and scenes that are segregated by design. It’s a show that undermines de facto racism by showing how absurd it is. 

“How do you do racism from a white person’s perspective in a city like this?” Esposito said at a rehearsal last Friday.

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Coreo coach and dance teacher Christine Kershaw-Hobson, director Robert Esposito, Production Stage Manager Valerie Vollano and Music Director Kevin James at Friday's dress rehearsal. 

In a testament to both Co-Op students and staff, the answer is both methodically and well. Very well, in fact, with a series of artistic choices that pay off. Early in the rehearsal process, cast and crew agreed that racially coded language in the script didn’t go beyond the stage, and kept to that pact through all 185 hours of rehearsal. 

Meanwhile, Esposito, students, and fellow teachers alike worked to make actors of color more visible throughout the show (Esposito noted that several of the ostensibly white characters are actually Latine, which adds a whole layer to a play about race as a divisive social construct). In this Hairspray, Black ensemble members are the cameramen, photographers, and magic makers behind the scenes—and sometimes in front of them too. It’s a reminder that people of color have always been in the room, but are often relegated to the sidelines by white systems of power and influence.  

Working with vocal coach Harriett Alfred, students added rich, full harmonies to many of the songs, as a Greek chorus might in Oedipus Rex or The Eumenides. It works: songs like “Without Love” become gorgeous meditations on the need for white people to step up as accomplices and step back when they are taking up too much space. Motormouth Maybelle’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” is an emotional tour de force that carries the second act. 

“I am proud of this cast for simply being able to do what most of America struggles to do—have an open and honest conversation about race and real American history,”  Esposito wrote in a director’s note for the show. 

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Top: English teacher Peter Scaramuzzo with Kayleigh Householder as Tracy and Selena Zamora as Edna. Bottom: Harriett Alfred warms students up. 

He’s quick to add that he doesn’t do any of it alone. For a second year in a row, Co-Op alum Kevin James returned to lead music direction. Band teachers Pat Smith and Matthew Chasen are back with a pit orchestra that is built smartly into the set. Alfred, who has inspired generations of singers, has worked with students at rehearsal and individually, pushing them to sing with everything they have. Dance faculty member Christine Kershaw-Hobson brought in choreography that keeps the show moving—literally—for two hours. 

If there are growing pains, the audience doesn’t see them. Tech director and production manager Janie Alexander-Haverkampf has supervised a new batch of students while rebuilding an entire department. English teachers Peter Scaramuzzo and Vanessa Zeskand have jumped in to help the ensemble out.

On stage, the cast soars. From the moment the lights come up, Householder is holding it down, bringing audiences right into her technicolor version of 1962 Baltimore. Letting her voice fill the auditorium (and it does, with jubilant cries of Oh!-Oh!-Oh! that make it hard not to dance), she has a keen understanding of where her body is in space, and what it can do. She seems unflappable, floating through the world with a sense of exactly where she’s going and how she’ll get there. 

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Dodgeball time!

There’s humor there, whether she’s pulling a friend’s hand suddenly to her chest with a smack, thrusting forward as she grooves, or trying to figure out where and how she fits into this thing called life. Her onstage parents Edna (Selena Zamora) and Wilbur (Judd) shine just as brightly, bringing the audience into their world as they dance through the aisles in “Timeless To Me.”

It is a sweet, final goodbye that they didn’t know they’d have: both were in RENT three years ago this week, when the school shut its doors. 

From main roles to ensemble, students come alive in the work, and Hairspray is richer for it. In his Co-Op debut, Steed plays Seaweed for his soft edges and sharp sense of humor, less of a Casanova than a sweet high schooler who is still figuring it out. That doesn’t mean he can’t captivate a room: when he launches into “Run and Tell That,” he’s suddenly serious, with a voice that feels like it could take the roof off. 

Alongside him, Norman is a joy to watch, with a solo on “Run and Tell That” that leaves the audience wanting a one-person musical in which they are the star. That extends to Brantley, who landed Motormouth after auditioning on a whim. When she starts to sing, she takes the whole cast and audience to church. 

In her performance, she also deftly probes that gray space between 1962 and 2023, in two cities that are not so different.  

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HairsprayPhotos2023 - 10Top, in the fur coat: Samaia Brantley as Motormouth Maybelle. Bottom: Norman during "Run and Tell That."

“Think we haven't tried?” she says to Tracy at one point about integrating t.v., and it sounds like contemporary conversations around resource reallocation in New Haven. “We've pleaded, begged and lied. We pressured the Mayor, petitioned the Gov, and what did we get?” 

“One day a month!” The ensemble responds in unison. 

After the school’s so-called “rebuild year,” the future of the theater department feels bright. Barrett, a sophomore in the department, is a goofy and endearing Link, who stuns the audience the first time he opens his mouth. Colón, who is also a sophomore, sticks the villainous landing, playing up Velma’s attachment to America's white past to a point of ridicule. So too Payton Goodwin, who leans into the shrill and overbearing confines of her character.

For the entirety of the play, an ensemble keeps the show literally moving forward. Over a year after returning to school in person, there’s a sense that they’re ready to see where it takes them next. Of the cast, 18 of the 29 students are in a musical for the first time, and 11 are sophomores. In all, 80 students worked on the show, from across all of Co-Op’s artistic disciplines.

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Sydney O'Connor as Corny Collins. 

As they ate dinner in the school’s cafeteria after Friday’s rehearsal, several students said they’ve taken lessons from the show, from historical context to newfound self-confidence. 

Chrystophe Obiang Ze, a senior in the ensemble (pictured above, in the dodgeball photo), remembered feeling a sense of shock the first time classmates blazed through the script, saying words he had never heard them say. It felt very tonally different from Sister Act, in which he played a drag queen. 

“The first day we rehearsed, it was my first time ever hearing white people say the N word,” he said. “We were like, ‘You cannot use it outside of the play.’ I think it’s a lesson. It’s a really nice lesson. I think it’s good that we do it and teach people what happened.” 

Still, he said, he learned the value of how to take up space, sometimes with no words at all. In the play, he springs into action as a photographer, twists through half a dozen dance scenes, and nails balletic leaps over the stage that gather height as he sails through the air. 

“I just think Co-Op’s not gonna be the same without me,” he said, and even in a cafeteria full of students, the loss felt palpable. 

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Top: Lillian Paluzzi and teacher Vanessa Zeskand. Bottom: Laila Kelly-Walker, who plays one of the Dynamites and a number of ensemble roles. 

Householder, who is a senior this year, said she’s dreamed about playing Tracy since she was four years old, and heard the soundtrack for the first time. When she landed the role, she was ecstatic. After playing a member of the “nunsemble” in Sister Act, it felt momentous.  

“I was like, ‘I should be her,’” she remembered her kid brain thinking. “I feel really happy that I’m in this play.”

Tracy, she said, has taught her a great deal about self confidence and speaking up when something doesn’t feel right. In the play, the character isn’t afraid to run her mouth when something doesn’t sit well with her. Householder is still growing into that. 

“There’s still a lot of segregation in our world,” she said. “I’ve been able to speak out more” since taking on the role. 

Zamora, who is also a senior, said she identified with Edna as soon as she slipped into the role. During Covid-19 lockdown and remote school, she struggled to come to terms with her body and appearance. Edna, who stays inside because she’s ashamed of her weight, struck a chord. 

“She’s in her apartment and just so isolated,” Zamora said. “In some other roles, I’ve always been self-conscious … like, am I skinny enough?” No more, she said: Edna helped put those nagging voices to rest.  

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Stage Manager Jadyn Wein and Tech director Janie Alexander-Haverkampf singing Wilbur's part when Judd was absent from a rehearsal on Friday.

She and Judd are also the last of what Esposito calls the “RENT kids”—students who were in the production of RENT that became, hours before it was set to open, an early casualty of the pandemic. At an invited dress rehearsal Monday, Judd said he is equally excited to be back, with a character that is silly by design. 

He said that Wilbur—something of a nutty professor and sweet, caring husband who loves a good whoopee cushion—helped him get out of his head. When Judd was in RENT, he was nervous to take on a single line as an ensemble member. Now, “It just feels like I have to play it up, and be extra silly,” he said. It also may be a last hurrah: he doesn’t plan to pursue musical theater in college next year.    

Other students are excited to be on stage, some for the first time. Brantley, a junior studying strings, never planned to try out for the show. But when auditions started in November “I’m just like, you know what? Why not?” she remembered. She only realized that Motormouth Maybelle was a significant role after coming home with the news, and seeing the excitement on her mom’s face. 

Her character has taught her to be a little louder and bolder, she said. Normally, Brantley doesn’t have the same outsized personality that Maybelle so embodies. As she got into character last week, she worked closely with Alfred on breathing, enunciating, and stepping into a big personality with an equally big voice. 

Like Obiang Ze, she sees Hairspray as a lesson, she said. In some ways, “it’s just so different from 1962,” she said. At school, people talk openly about the value of representation. As a young Black woman, she feels supported in her classes and on the stage. At the same time, she still feels and sees racism, sexism, and prejudice weaving themselves into society. If she could, she said, she’d put a stop to them for good—just like her character. 

Norman, a sophomore in the theater department who plays Little Inez, said “it feels amazing” to jump into a main role after being in the ensemble their freshman year. “I found my people in Hairspray.”

“I feel so much like her because that’s like my inner child,” Norman said. “I’m so bubbly and happy when I’m with my cast members. The cast is playful. We joke around a lot … it creates an experience that you can’t even explain.”  

For a sneak peek, catch the videos above.