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Director Lili-Anne Brown On The Fun, Challenges & Feel Of 'Hairspray'

The American musical Hairspray has had many different iterations in its life. First in 1988 as a John Waters film, followed by a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan. And more recently, it was adapted into the popular musical most people are familiar with either through stage or screens.

For those who need a refresher, the plot follows the story of plus-size teen Tracy Turnblad, who dreams of dancing on a local TV show. Hairspray tackles issues such as body image, bullying and segregation in 1960s Baltimore, Maryland — all with an upbeat score, of course.

For the first time, the Skylight Music Theater brings Hairspray to its stage as their holiday show running through Dec. 30.

"You want to have a broad range of appreciation for people, so that's basically what the show is about. Although, that's not what it feels like it's about, which is the fun of Hairspray," says director Lili-Anne Brown, who is also making her Skylight debut.

Credit Joe Mazza
"Hairspray" director Lili-Anne Brown.

Brown says she feels like the many productions of Hairspray have caused it to lose it's original John Waters weirdness — something she wanted to bring back in her cast.

"I encourage people in spirit to keep that alive and not be afraid to lean in to just the extremity of the characters, and sometimes the normalness of the characters," says Brown.

Skylight's production of Hairspray includes 17 high school students in the youth ensemble and 12 adult cast members. Brown admits she's never worked with young actors before, but they rose to the occasion — especially considering the musical tracks weren't meant for young actors.

"I've never worked with this many kids in my life ... It was a pleasant surprise all the way around because they're surprisingly crazily good!" says Brown. "[The cast members are] like gifts."

Even though theater isn't all fun and games, Brown says she likes it to feel as if it is. The most important lesson she takes away from directing a production is how to take care of her cast, and the most memorable aspects is the work that happens off-stage.

"The best part, honestly, is in the room. I mean yeah, going out and getting to perform for audiences is wonderfully gratifying. But the making of the thing in the rehearsal room is so fun," says Brown. "I feel like that's maybe why I'm a director in the first place. Is just that putting together, that making the band thing is a joy to me and I think something that I'm good at."

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.