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West Hartford Summer Arts Festival to Present 'Hairspray'

Now in its 36th season, West Hartford's highly-regarded community theater program brings a big show, big cast, and lots of music to the Hall High School stage.

A cast of 48 energetic students has been working feverishly to put their own special finishing touches on the West Hartford Summer Arts Festival production of "Hairspray," which will open this Thursday at Hall High School.

Sara Demos Avery, now in her third year as SAF artistic director, is excited to be bringing a "big show, with a big cast" to the stage this summer. "It's amazing how much music there is," Avery said.

"This is a very different show; we usually do older stuff," she said. Over the past two years, the kids kept suggesting "Hairspray," and Avery decided to go for it this year.

"Hairspray," takes place in the segregated world of 1960s Baltimore, and focuses on the quest of "loveable plus-size heroine" Tracy Turnblad, a passionate dancer who wins a spot on the local TV dance show, "The Corny Collins Show."

Turnblad turns her passion for dance into a quest to change the world one step at a time, overcoming prejudices of race and body size to integrate the TV show and find love – with every strand of her larger-than-life hair remaining perfectly coiffed throughout.

Shelby Davis, a 2012 graduate of Newington High School who will be a theater major at St. Michael's College in Vermont beginning this fall, plays the plucky Turnblad with what she calls "a fun, warm, and welcoming presence on stage." This is Davis' second time in the role, having starred in the Newington High School production just a few months ago.

Davis said she's bringing a bit of a different spin to the role this time, "pulling out different aspects of Tracy."

Thomas Doelger, a rising junior at , plays Turnblad's love interest, Link Larkin, the character played by Zac Efron in the 2007 movie version of the show. In his second year performing with the Summer Arts Festival, Doelger said he is "very grateful, pleased, and excited" about the role.

Doelger said he's not really "a swaggy Elvis-esque person" like his character, but believes he brings to the role "an insight into how you should live – just be yourself."

As Edna Turnblad, Dean Marino may have the most difficult job – playing a woman. Edna is typically played by men in drag, and Marino seems up to the challenge.

He said he's spent a lot of time researching live versions of the show online, seeing how others have taken on the role.

"I've also been watching women walk," said Marino, who has been outfitted with a pair of size 14 heels for several scenes. "I have to dance in them! I also have to wear tap shoes, slippers, and a bra with rice in it," he said, laughing. He also wears four different wigs.

Marino, a rising senior at and starred as Beast in the school's production of "" last spring, said he is honored to have this role in his first season with SAF. "This is the most interesting of all the roles I've played," he said.

graduate Kerri Alexander, a Bloomfield resident who just finished her second year as a music and arts administration major at Wagner College in New York, is spending her third summer with SAF.

"This is one of my favorite shows of all time," said Alexander, who plays Motormouth Maybelle. She's a big fan of those who have played the role on Broadway and in the movie, although she said her voice is not as "gravelly and raw."

"I've tried to put a little of my roots in jazz into the role. It's a jazzier and lighter Motormouth," Alexander said.

The Summer Arts Festival is now in its 36th year, with renowned executive producer Haig Shahverdian, its founder, still at the helm even though he has now retired from West Hartford Public Schools.

The SAF started as just a West Hartford program, but now includes participants from other area towns, including Avon, Farmington, Granby, Newington, Windsor, and Bloomfield. Participants range in age from 14-23. (A cast list is attached as a PDF.)

Artistic Director Avery, who teaches at Northwest Catholic during the school year, and her team of Kate Morran (choreographer) and Emmitt Drake (music director) have been working long hours for the past several weeks, with rehearsals Monday through Friday from 6 to 10 p.m., plus some weekends. There's also a large crew of students, led by professionals, handling the production aspects like lighting, scenery, and costumes.

Avery's husband is in the 20-piece orchestra, and their 3-year-old son Charlie has attended most of the rehearsals, watched over by a babysitter. The family feel of the show took on a new dimension when Avery's brother passed away just four days before rehearsals started. She has dedicated the show to his memory.

"Doing this show is helping me cope. It's a beautiful show about people doing the right thing, standing up for what they believe, which is what my brother did," Avery said.

"This is a very in-your-face production, and the sheer energy is amazing. People won't be able to escape without smiling," Avery said. She said it's pretty much a family friendly show, with a great moral and great lesson.

"Hairspray" will be on stage at Hall High School on July 26, 27, and 28, at 7:30 p.m. The box office will also be open Tuesday and Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and seating is general admission. For more information, call 860-561-8160.

The Summer Arts Festival is a joint venture, sponsored by the West Hartford Department of Human and Leisure Services and the Board of Education.

John Doider July 31, 2012 at 09:15 PM
Shelby Davis is such an inspiration & dedicated performer that brings Tracy Turnblad to life. She trully is an upcoming star!!! She was able to capture Tracy's spunky nature as well has the passion Tracy has for standing up for what is right in this world. Her voice is absolutley amazing that it gave us goosebumps, she is able to get you excited and upbeat when she sings Good morning Baltimore and You can't stop the beat, and she tugs at your heart when singing I can hear the bells and Baltimore reprise! Her comedic timing is spot on whether she is delivering the "funny line" or setting up another actor to deliver the line! Watching Ms. Davis' portrayal you just can't help but want to be in Tracy's corner even if she is a little ditzy and naive. She's "Just a girl trying to fit in". From Shelby's bio it appears she is going to St. Michael's college in Vermont to study theater, I know that my wife and I will gladly drive the four hours just to see her perform in any production she may be in! more to follow on the production in another posting
John Doider July 31, 2012 at 09:21 PM
Thomas Doelger was the perfect choice for Link Larkin. His performance was outstanding and the girls in the audience said he was "Justin Beiberish", which they loved. I can see good things in the future for this young man. Dante Jeanfelix, wow! I don't think I could ever say enough about this young man! He was a perfect compliment to Emma Fierberg's Penny. Energenic, charasmatic, his dancing was outstanding. Each and every time after "run and tell that", his big dance number, the audience went nuts! He is studying at Tish school of drama at NYU and I can see why! Dean Marino was a hilarious Edna Turnblad. He definetely had the female manners down perfect, and when he danced in "your timeless to me" he was so light on his feet! Each time he said "I don't care for them" I laughed so hard my sides hurt! Last but certainly not least Emma Fierberg as Penny....wow! Another great casting choice. Emma brought such a graceful awkwardness to Penny that just made you love her and want her as your best friend! The connection between Penny & Seaweed was priceless and endearing. Velma was evil and plotting, and Amber was mean and conniving....again great casting....these young adults certainly know how to act! Bravo to the entire cast, orchestra and production staff!!! My wife and I saw the Ivoryton playhouse production (they are an equity playhouse) and honestly we thought this cast was more talented, this set design was better and loved this production more
Angie Holtzer July 31, 2012 at 09:50 PM
Hey SAF! Awesome job with "Hairspray" This was the best SAF production I have ever seen!!!! Shelby Davis why haven't I seen you in an SAF production before! Please come back next year, you were awesome!
Kait Ashbocher August 01, 2012 at 12:16 PM
Ok so I admit it like I was so not excited to she this show. I'm visiting my grandparents for the summer and we just did this show at my HS. Ok so I admit it YOU GUYS ROCKED IT! OMG, from one Tracy to another - You were A-MAZ-ING, I can't even come close to what you did on that stage!!!! Your voice is so beautiful - is there anything you can't sing? Oh and like let's talk about your line delivery - FABULOUS!!! You had the entire audience in the palm of your hand! Good luck in the future!
Walter Hesbaum August 01, 2012 at 01:37 PM
I have to admit I was pleasently surprised to see folks leaving comments on this productino so I wanted to add my two cents. SAF this production was incredible. All of your casting choices were great, the orchestra sounded professional and kudos to the conductor for lowering the sound level when the mics went out. Seaweed rocked that stage in run and tell that. Link was a true crooner/romantic. Tracy, well I could write for hours about her! Ms. Davis seemed to have been made for this role! I hope to see you casting her in more productions in the future. Thank you supporting the Arts, SAF!
Lynn Corchan August 01, 2012 at 03:56 PM
Way to go West Hartford! I love to see you investing time and money in the Arts! SAF is a wonderful program and I am glad to see they are allowing kids from neighboring towns to join in! Shelby and Dante I hope to see you on broadway someday! I will certainly be on the look out for you both! Everyone in the cast was great! The orchestra was awesome! Speical shout out to Josh the house manager, he was very helpful!
Connie Raegan August 01, 2012 at 06:23 PM
You all have pretty much said what I was going to say! Dean as Edna, I don't think I have ever laughed as hard as I did with you playing that role (other than the one and only Harvey!) and I have seen this show ALOT! Shelby as Tracy, I had the pleasure of seeing you in this role (and several others) and you are an amazing actress/singer/dancer, I honestly think that if they were looking for a new Tracy on Broadway then you would be it! (between us here I thought you were much better then alot of the Tracy's on broadway and on Tour....right up there with Marissa) Oh and Dante, mmmmmmmmm you can move! I have never heard a crowd respond as they did in WH after your dance in run and tell that. In short, everyone was outstanding!!!! You should all be proud of yourselves!!!! Looking forward to seeing what you have in store of us next year !!!!

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