Hairspray takes its high school characters, their parents and the town on a journey of self-discovery.
With its 1960s themes about gender, stereotypes and race, Hairspray took the Patel Conservatory students preparing to perform the musical at the Straz Center on a similar journey.
"It's weird doing the show because we have been working on all the numbers all the time, but the black and white cast members are never in the room at the same time," said Blake High student Regan Moore, who plays Amber Von Tussle, the archnemesis of lead character Tracy Turnblad. "We are only in one song together and that's the last song, so it's been funny and kind of interesting.
"We get insight into how it feels to be segregated."
Sean Paris, an acting teacher at Blake and the director of Hairspray, inspired Regan and fellow Blake student MeKeia Butler to audition for the musical.
Regan, who is white, and MeKeia, who is black, live in Brandon but never hung out until they joined the musical. Now Regan gives MeKeia rides to rehearsals, and the two found that they have more in common than they thought, including the fact that both published books in middle school.
The rest of the cast has also become close.
"Yesterday, literally, we were helping a cast member find her 'inner black,' so we had our own Negro Day, because in the actual musical there is Negro Day on The Corny Collins Show," said MeKeia, who plays Motormouth Maybelle. "We had a blast. We brought in a bunch of soul food, and then almost the whole cast got up and started dancing with each other.
"It was one of the best times, since we aren't all together all the time, but we came together at that moment."
The new producing director for the Patel Conservatory, Brian D. Frey, knows that being in Hairspray and other Patel productions is a great opportunity for aspiring performers.
"It's exciting to see kids grow. We don't throw easy work at them; we stretch their limits."
That's exactly what Tamara Nolin did. The 23-year-old stretched her limits in tackling the role of Tracy Turnblad. Though she has been dancing since she was 3, she has never acted or sung in front of an audience. She has never been directed or had vocal lessons.
"It's been the best three weeks of my life," she said of the theater camp.
The USF communications student has always wanted to perform. Originally from Fort Meade, she tried out for Hairspray with no expectations and received a callback that put her on center stage.
"I thought I had an idea, but I didn't know it would be this taxing," she said. "I didn't realize how much goes into a production."
The dance instructor, former Rockette Kelly King, is one of the reasons the students are putting so much energy into the production.
"This is the way it is in Broadway. Either you get it, or you're not in the number, or you get yelled at," Regan said. "It's okay because we are getting things done, and that's how it works in the real world."
New challenges, along with the direction of Paris and King, are preparing the cast for the future.
"When Kelly goes 'That's not right' and you're like, 'Oh, my God,' " said MeKeia Butler, "but then you realize you have to appreciate her for that because if I went into an audition and tripped over my foot, they'd kick me out.
"Kelly and Sean talk to us like we are professional actors."
Arielle Waldman can be reached at [email protected]