Feb. 16 2011 12:00 AM

For ’Hairspray’ director Chad DeKatch, the 1960s musical is no period piece

Ari Helgesen plays the starry-eyed aspiring TV star Tracy Turnblatt in Riverwalk Theatre's production of

When it came to preparing for
"Hairspray," director Chad DeKatch already
had a leg up — literally.

"I remember my mom taught me the
Mashed Potato in our kitchen when I was
5," DeKatch recalled.

For the past few weeks, he’s been watching
his cast do that same dance — and many
others from the early 1960s — on the stage
of the Riverwalk Theatre.

And he admits
he’s been a bit jealous: "In the first dance
rehearsals, I got up there and did the dances
with them, because working with Karyn
(Perry, the show’s
choreographer) is
so much fun."

DeKatch, who
has directed shows
in the Okemos
school district for
almost 10 years,
had hoped to work
on "Hairspray"
one day, but he
never expected it
would happen as quickly as it did. When
Riverwalk announced its season last year,
"Smokey Joe’s Café" was in the February

"But the rights fell through," DeKatch
said.  "At the same time, ’Hairspray’ became
available. Everything lined up; it was meant
to be."

Set in 1962 Baltimore, "Hairspray" follows
teenager Tracy Turnblad (Ari Helgesen)
from starry-eyed schoolgirl to TV personality
after she manages to dance her way
onto "The Corny Collins Show," Baltimore’s
answer to "American Bandstand."  Just as
Tracy is adjusting to her new-found celebrity
status, she’s
pulled into the
city’s burgeoning
civil-rights movement.

Tracy balances
high school with
TV appearances.
But DeKatch’s first
passion in high
school was sports: "I
was a jock: football,
basketball, baseball,

He enjoyed it all,
except football. "I
remember one of
my football coaches
said to us, ’You have
to be out here for
yourself, not for
your dad or for
somebody else.’ So
I finished out that
season, and the
next year I joined the

Like DeKatch, Tracy
also follows her heart,
even though viper-tongued
Amber (Clare
Brennan) and Velma
Von Tussle (Amanda Whitehead) insist that
Tracy’s ample figure doesn’t belong on the
dance floor, much less on television. In the
process, Tracy even manages to open the
mind of her sheltered mom, Edna (Tony
Sump), while making a big impression on
Link (Ben English), the standout talent on
"The Corny Collins Show."

"I was a fan of (writer-director) John
Waters’ film when I was younger," DeKatch
said. "The music is definitely catchy. But
what I love is that at the heart of this show
is the story of this single girl taking on a
cause. It would be easy to rely on the songs
and dances to get you through, but there’s
so much more to the show."

To give his youthful cast a firm framework,
DeKatch — who teaches history and
government at Okemos High School — held
classes every Thursday before rehearsal to
discuss the social norms, trends, clothing
and politics of the period. ("You can’t get the
teacher out of me," he joked.)

"We were always coming back to the
themes of black America and white America,"
he said. Some cast members had grown up
in communities in which they hadn’t had
much contact with African-Americans, a
situation very different from DeKatch’s own
upbringing in the Flint area.

"My father was a policeman for 25 years,
and we were always mixing with all kinds of
people. It was very blue-collar at my house,
and I’m very grateful for that experience.
That was probably another driving factor
behind wanting to do the show: wanting to
share that experience."

DeKatch asked his actors if the same
issues raised in "Hairspray" were still relevant
almost 50 years later.

"The black cast members talked first,
and told about their experiences," DeKatch
said, "and afterward, some of the white cast
members were saying, ’Really?’"

Different backgrounds lead to different
perceptions of the world.

"It doesn’t matter what social issue
you’re talking about: Until it’s thrown
in your face, you don’t have to deal with
it. We could be here having this conversation,
and someone could come up and
throw out a racial slur, and all of a sudden
you have to deal with it."

The "Hairspray" team has also latched on
to a cause that’s not addressed in the show.

"As a cast, I wanted us to look at our
community, and one thing we kept coming
back to was the issue of homelessness,"
DeKatch said.

"We teamed up with Haven House of
East Lansing, and we’ll be offering opportunities
(for patrons) to find out about
the organization. I kind of wanted to do a
Broadway Cares (the HIV/AIDS fundraising
organization in New York). We have an
opportunity to give back."

7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Feb. 17-27

Riverwalk Theatre, 228 Museum Dr., Lansing

$20 adults; $18 students, seniors and military

(517) 482-5700