@story MARCUS COKER
@images CAROLYN SLOAN
It’s a lot of work being an actor, just ask the cast of “Hairspray.” The group of fifty-four that was selected by the Young Actors Guild in Fort Smith has been working on the songs, the choreography and the lines for weeks now. But as tired as they get, they never forget just how lucky they are to be on stage.
I sat down with eighteen-year-old Chad Burris, who’s playing Edna Turnblad. Yes, I said Edna. It’s one of the show’s quirky traditions, having a male lead play a female role. Hey, if it’s good enough for John Travolta, it’s just fine with Chad. He’s been pining for the spotlight for years.
In fact, he tried out for the Young Actors Guild production of “Annie” in the fourth grade. He didn’t get cast, at least onstage. He did, however, work behind the curtains, cleaning the dog pen. Overwhelmed by the smell, he got sick. It’s been uphill ever since.
“I just kept going back until they said, ‘Just give him a part. He’s here all the time anyway,’” says Chad.
His latest role with Young Actors Guild is in the musical “Hairspray.” Chad says, “I think this is going to be my most memorable [role] to date. I’ve never done anything like this. I’m in drag.” Chad will be playing the mother of Tracy Turnblad, a plump teenager in 1962 Baltimore whose dream is to dance on “The Corny Collins Show,” a local TV dance program. Edna’s role on in the Broadway musical and in the two movie versions of “Hairspray” has always been a drag role. “I actually tried [the costume] on in a Western Sizzlin’ parking lot,” says Chad.
If you’ve never seen Chad onstage, stop everything you’re doing, get out your Day Planner, and make time to do so. He’s that good. When he first walks on stage, audience members may think they’re in for just another high school musical, another night of nothing spectacular. But as soon as Chad begins to deliver his lines, eyes get wider and people begin to smile. His timing is impeccable. Pretty soon, people can’t stop laughing. He’s absolutely hilarious. He’s so talented and professional, it’s easy to forget how young he is.
“It doesn’t matter who you are. If you want to do it, you can. If you dream it, you can achieve it,” says Chad. “I think that I’m a perfect example. I’m a chubby dork, but now people are going to pay for my college so I can go and pursue being a chubby dork. And I want to be something big, and I think that if I want it, I can have it.”
Chad is often cast as the underdog, the funny guy, because he can always get a laugh. But when the music starts playing and it’s time for Chad to sing, audience members who don’t know him hold their breath and get nervous. They don’t want him to be embarrassed. Of course, they don’t know he has a voice so pure he can make them cry.
“Singing has come more natural than the acting. The dancing is the hardest part, though. And this year I can dance. I didn’t know I could. It’s just the high heels, I guess. I don’t know,” says Chad.
After “Hairspray,” the spotlight will continue to shine on Chad. He just graduated from Alma High School and will be attending Arkansas Tech University on an all-paid vocal performance scholarship.
“I don’t care if I’m waiting tables for the rest of my life and trying to audition. It’s just the thrill of it. I love the live audience; I just feed off of it. It’s an addiction. Theater is my choice of drug,” says Chad. “I was just given these personality traits: I was loud, I didn’t care what people thought, and I was energetic, so that works. I think there are a lot of kids that have all those things but don’t know how to use them positively, and you can actually use those things for good things.”
Also in the “Hairspray” cast is Crystal Davidson, who grew up singing in her church choir. Until now, she’s never performed in a play or musical and she’s never acted, not even when she attended Northside High School in Fort Smith. Yet Crystal landed the lead role of Motormouth Maybelle, a role played by Queen Latifah in the latest “Hairspray” movie.
She takes a deep breath and says, “This has taken a lot of my life away, but I’m actually thankful for it, because I could have been on the streets or somewhere else, but Young Actors Guild has me all the time.”
Crystal’s becomes more serious as she begins to talk about Young Actors Guild and what they have done for her. She says there were times she wanted to quit because she didn’t know her lines. “Missy [the director] and Ms. Brenda took me aside, told me I could do it, told me I’m a special person.. .I’m just trying to live that way, so God can use me to encourage other people.
“[Being in the show has] actually helped me with my self-esteem, because I didn’t think I could get up in front of people, and they helped me realize that anybody can.”
Director Missy Gipson says the shows help everyone involved. “I swear being in the show makes them better.” They do what you expect them to do. Not only does it challenge them, and occasionally defeat them, but they rise to the occasion. I’m amazed.”
Without a doubt, you’ll be amazed too. They’ve spared no expense on sets, costumes, and professional help, including a costume designer and a lighting engineer. Also, their seven-piece live band will include three UA – Fort Smith students,” Missy says. “It’s all about your team, your creative team. [We have] some really cool people involved.”
For tickets, contact the Young Actors Guild
Show Dates and Times:
June 9, 10 and 11 at 7 p.m.
June 11 and 12 at 2 p.m.
The Alma Performing Arts Center
Ticket Price: $8 for children under 12; $12 for adult