Chats with Celia Blitzer, MaryLee Adams, and Jesaira Glover
One is chunky, sweet, and dances up a storm and gets her man; one is ditsy, not too bright, and loves chocolate; and one is assertive, motherly, and knows where she’s been and where’s she’s going. Three energetic and brilliant actresses – Celia Blitzer, MaryLee Adams, and Jesaira Glover – play Tracy Turnblad, Penny Pingleton, and Motormouth Maybelle in the rousing production of Hairspray, now rocking the in-the-round production at Toby’s-The Dinner Theatre of Columbia. Here they talk about their roles, their careers, and why Hairspray is such a crowd-pleaser.
Joel: What is Hairspray about from your points of view?
Celia: Hairspray is about having big dreams, a big heart, and of course big hair. Tracy proves that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.
MaryLee: From the point of view of Penny, Hairspray is about friendship, family, and love. Friendship – because of her devotion and loyalty to her best friend Tracy, who she always supports and encourages throughout their entire journey. Family – because of the ongoing struggle with her mother, which I see as a “love/hate” relationship. Penny’s mother disapproves of anything that is too modern or controversial but by the end, Penny and her mother come to an understanding and she is finally accepted by her mother as a young woman who can make her own life choices. Lastly, love – because of her new romance with Seaweed. Penny is introduced to a whole new world when she meets her “black white knight” and although their relationship might not be accepted by most, their budding romance is worth the risk of disapproval.
Jesaira: From Motormouth’s perspective, Hairspray is about knowing who you are and using that uniqueness to make a difference. It’s about personal conviction and standing up for what you believe is right. It’s about taking the risk and being supportive of that decision despite what happens. Motormouth doesn’t allow any handicaps to prevent her from being successful. She views challenges as opportunities to conquer, not to shrink back. She’s confident and this is a legacy that she seeks to impart into her children as well as those who come into her circle. For Motormouth, Hairspray is about love and self-acceptance; it is about choking fear by the neck and conquering the impossible.
Joel: How do you relate to your characters?
Celia: Tracy and I are alike in many ways – which made it easy to find the character. We both have big dreams. We both have a sense of innocence about us. And we are both full of energy and have a passion for life
MaryLee: Penny was a challenge for me, particularly the physical acting aspect. I have been dancing pretty much my whole life and I usually feel very comfortable on stage, especially when it comes to movement. Penny is NOT a dancer for 95% of the show. She is the total opposite of me in that respect, and I found myself every day having to ween farther and father away from my normal stage habits, and really focus on becoming the awkward, uncoordinated girl that my character needed in order to be believable. That being said, there are so many similarities that I find in Penny’s personality. I am a huge goof ball and can be quite clumsy, corky, and awkward in my own way. I would like to say that I am a devoted friend and always have tons of energy, which I think is one of the main character traits of Penny. She should exude energy and always have the mind set that “the glass is half full”.
Jesaira: Wow! Great question I believe I relate to Mabel in so many ways. I am a natural born fighter and leader with the God-given ability to be compassionate and loving towards others. Like Mabel, I accept people for who they are and I love them even if I don’t agree with them. I am confident and sassy with a sexy flair – much like Mabel – and I like to believe I have a wonderful sense of humor….although, I’m not as clever as she is…she rhymes all of her words….I’m still working on that! One of the things that really helped me in character development and preparation for this role, was just being me…making each scene believable and real. Finally, like Mabel – I’m BIG, BLONDE (my real hair does have blonde highlights) and I’M BEAUTIFUL!! J
Joel: Is your performance based on a friend or family member?
Celia: Not really. My performance as Tracy is pretty close to who I am as Celia.
MaryLee: No, it is not. My character comes from myself, Toby’s direction, and the book. I think that it is very important to be honest to the book because the lines are so clever and witty, and if you do too much with them it takes away from the humor and intent.
Jesaira: My performance is based on my grandmother. My grandmother is a lot like Mabel.
Joel: If you could play another role in the show, who would you want to play?
Celia: I love Tracy, but if I could play any other character then I’d have to say Motormouth Mabel! “I Know Where I’ve Been” is a showstopper. It doesn’t matter what your background is – the message is so powerful. I’m in awe of Jesaira every time she sings that song
MaryLee: I would LOVE to play Velma Von Tussle. My good friend Heather Beck is pretty awesome in our production, and it just seems like so much fun to play the villain. She also has amazing costumes and is a total 60’s power woman which I think would be a blast.
Jesaira: There isn’t another role in this show fit for me. I enjoy playing the role that I have.
Joel: Let’s talk about your auditions. I’m sure everyone within 100 miles auditioned for these roles. What did you sing/dance at your audition, and what made your audition so special that you were offered the roles of Tracy, Penny, and Motormouth Mabelle? When did you find out that you had the role?
Celia: “Good Morning Baltimore” has been one of my audition songs since the music became available. I have used it a few times auditioning for Toby. Toby knew way back when I did Grease in 2005, that I wanted to play Tracy one day. Once Toby finally got the rights to Hairspray, I was invited to callbacks. I sang “Good Morning Baltimore”, “I Can Hear the Bells”, and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” over the course of three rounds of callbacks. I did a few cold readings. I remember being partnered up with Larry Munsey (Edna) and David Jennings (Link). We danced to “You Can’t Stop the Beat” while singing it and that is when I came up with the new title to that song – “You Can’t Stop to Breathe”. By the third round of callbacks it was down to two of us for Tracy. Ariel Vinitsky and I left there figuring one of us had the part and the other would be the understudy.
It felt like torture as I waited a week (over the Thanksgiving break) to hear anything. I remember when I finally got the phone call from Production Manager Vickie Johnson to offer me the part of Tracy Turnblad. I can’t help but get teary eyed writing this because that was the moment my dream of playing Tracy came true. And not only was I going to get to finally play my dream role, but it was the regional premier for a professional theater company for five months! I was so happy I cried on the phone. Then I called my parents and cried some more. That was a good day. I think what made my audition so special is because my dream was to play Tracy Turnblad. I let that same passion for wanting something so bad come across in my audition for Tracy.
MaryLee: I was invited to the call back for Hairspray where I first learned the audition dance taught to us by choreographer, Mark Minnick, and it was seriously the most fun audition dance I had ever done. Right then I knew that I needed to get into this show. After the dance, they made a cut and the rest of us were asked to stay and sing. Then I got an email calling me back for Amber and Penny. There were about five girls called back for each part, and we sang and did readings. Funny story was that I had two different outfits I brought with me. One was a form fitting dress and high heels for Amber, and the other was a cute skirt, blouse, and flats for Penny. I was teased for having “costume changes” at a call back, but it totally helped me go from one character to the other. Toby actually asked me after my Amber audition if I could “de-sexify” myself and I told her not to worry and that I had come prepared with a more “Penny appropriate” outfit. LOL!. About a week later, I got a call offering me the part of Penny Pingleton – and I gladly accepted.
Jesaira: Well, very honestly, during the initial audition rounds, I was dealing with a family tragedy. It was a few days before Thanksgiving when I had to leave Maryland for an emergency visit to Michigan just to discover that my mom was diagnosed with cancer. So, I missed the first round. However, I contacted Toby and her team because I felt passionate about the role, and I wanted a shot at it! This is one of the few roles I felt I was DESTINED to do. I was drawn to the role, and when I did come in for the audition, I gave it the best I possibly could. Essentially purpose, destiny, and perfect timing KISSED each other and here I am. I auditioned on a Friday and I found out I had the role the NEXT day!
Joel: You all have fantastic voices. Where did you get your vocal training?
Celia: I started taking voice lessons in high school with a lady name Rosemary Houghton in Rockville. When I went to college I took lessons from the fabulous Doug Bowles. And now I take lessons (when I can find the time) with my friend, Keith Tittermary.
MaryLee: Thank you very much! I owe the majority of my vocal training to Tom Pedersen. I studied with him at Catholic University and he is still my vocal coach. He is amazing and has taught me so much. Also, performing eight shows a week at Toby’s over the past few years has made a huge impact on my vocal stamina and consistency. For this show/role in particular, I owe a big thanks to our musical director Brant Challacombe.
Jesaira: Thank you!!! I started my initial training in Michigan under the tutelage of The Herman Harris Music Conservatory. I also had a few years of classical training. However, the majority of my training comes from exposure to singing in church. I’ve been singing since the age of 8, and my mother would make me sing in church all the time.
Joel: Celia: – Where did you get your dance training, and what are you doing to keep your energy to do this exhausting role?
Celia: I never really had any formal dance training growing up. I danced in the show choir in high school, but I was usually the girl in the back. I remember one day the choreographer, Donna Rose, had moved me up to the front row for a dance and she explained to the class that, “Celia may not be the best dancer here, but she has such personality when she performs and that is why she is up front.” I will always remember that and I use it anytime I have to dance. I figure as long as people are looking at my face then my feet can fake their way through a dance. Any additional dance training has come from my experiences in various shows and a few classes I took in college. Mark Minnick deserves huge credit for making me come across as a dancer in Hairspray. As for my energy – I am having the time of my life doing what I love to do so the energy just comes naturally. I know I’ve had a great show if I am completely exhausted by the end of the day. I sleep really well at night.
Joel: MaryLee – Congrats on sharing the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Musical Ensemble for Keegan Theatre’s amazing production of RENT. Tell us about your RENT experience and that moment when they opened the envelope and announced that you and your fellow castmates of RENT had won, and when Parker Drown won Outstanding Actor in a Resident Musical, for playing Angel.
MaryLee: Thank you, it was such an exciting night for our cast. I had an amazing experience doing RENT and it was such an honor receiving the Outstanding Ensemble Award. When they called our names I definitely jumped out of my seat and started hugging everyone within grabbing reach. Then when we were all up on stage together, it was pretty surreal. We are such a family, and it meant so much that we were all together again. Even more than that – we were recognized for our work that we were all so proud of. Regarding Parker’s win, all I can say is, “Oh my gosh!”. I can’t even begin to say how excited I was for him. Parker is my best friend and he was my date for the Helen Hayes Awards ceremony. I was sitting next to him holding his hand when they announced that he had won. I burst into tears of joy on the spot, and would’ve never stopped hugging him if he hadn’t had to get onto the stage and accept his award. It was a night I will always remember and cherish.
Joel: Jesaira – “I Know Where I’ve Been” is such a powerful number, which you sing so powerfully. What does the song mean to you, and what are you thinking about when you are singing it?
Jesaira: Thank you. Once again, I relate to this song completely. This song reminds me of my struggles, some major hardships in my life. I lost my dad to lung cancer 9 years ago and my life was turned upside down, and then in the latter part of 2009, I found out that my mom had cancer. So, I sing this song from a very REAL place in my heart. I sing it from a place of humility and gratitude. I’ve experienced so much rejection, hurt and pain, yet I am still here to tell the story, and this is the energy I tap into when I sing this song each night. I sing “I Know Where I’ve Been” from a place of deep spirituality and real introspection. I am thinking about how faithful God has been, and how He will continue to keep me, despite where I’ve been.
Finally, despite all of my personal trials and tribulations, I am positive that my future is much brighter than ANY negative experience I have ever had. I am hopeful, and it is my desire to impart that hope to others when they experience me singing this song. No matter, life’s hardships are opportunities to SOAR. I believe I am headed toward a place of great prosperity, and that’s my present hope. I KNOW where I’ve been but MORE IMPORTANTLY, I know where I’m going.
Joel: When did you first decide you wanted to be an actress and/or singer, and what is your first memory of performing on the stage?
Celia: I love sharing this story. I was an extremely shy child (just like Tracy, “could barely walk and talk so much as dance and sing”). When I was 11 years old, my parents surprised me with tickets to see Damascus Theater Company’s production of Hello Dolly. I sat there in awe of what I saw happening on that stage. My mother said she had more fun watching me watch that show. That stage bug bit me hard that night. I begged my mother to write the theater company a letter and ask about auditions. She told me that if I wanted to do this bad enough, I would write the letter myself. Best lesson ever. So I did and got an audition notice a few months later for Bye Bye Birdie. I showed up with my little tape player and sang Belle’s opening number in Beauty & the Beast along with the recording (clearly I had never auditioned before). Well, I got a callback for Randolph MacAfee (I think because I showed up in my softball uniform). I didn’t get the part, but I still got cast in the chorus, and the rest is history.
MaryLee: My very first audition was when I was five years old. I auditioned for a regional voice over job and they were seeing little girls from all over the Mid-Atlantic area. They were trying to find a girl to play a child version of Ilsa in Casablanca and after my very dramatic reading… I got the job. That was when my Mom knew I was going to be an actress. I was pretty set on being a professional soccer player for most of my childhood, so it wasn’t until high school when I really caught the “performing bug” and decided that this was the career path I wanted to go down.
Jesaira: My first performance was at the tender age of 8. I sang “Hello Detroit” by the late Sammy Davis, Jr. It was an elementary school concert and my mom still has a picture of me singing with my head titled to the side…FUNNY!! I’ve always wanted to sing, act and dance (although, my dancing needs some help) since that time. However, as I got older, I buried that dream because I didn’t believe people would take me serious, and I wasn’t certain it would sustain me financially.
I don’t see this as just an occupation – this is my VOCATION. It is something I was called to do. It is an opportunity for me to reach people, a chance for me to make a difference in the life of someone that ordinarily would not listen. The Performing Arts have the unique ability to cross racial, gender, sexual, religious boundaries, It’s like a universal language that everyone is receptive to. I am called to be a performer and I view it as an occasion to be a blessing to others! o, last June, I left WMAR-ABC Channel 2 to pursue this full time, and it’s been a great and rewarding journey!
Joel: You have all performed locally in other productions. What roles have you performed, and which one is your favorite?
Celia: Some of my favorite roles include Jan in Grease (Toby’s Columbia), Bellomy in The Fantasticks (American University), Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof (Montgomery Playhouse), Marta in Company (Damascus Theater Company), Yonah in Children of Eden (Greenbelt Arts Center), Sister Robert Ann in Nunsense (Sandy Spring Theater), Glinda/Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz (Potomac Theatre Company), and “Turn Back, O Man” in Godspell (Kensington Arts Theater). Okay, well that’s most of my bio. While I’ve loved every single one of those characters, my favorite role thus far has been playing Tracy!
MaryLee: At Toby’s I have played Gabriella in High School Musical, Gertie in Oklahoma, Consuela in West Side Story, and was also in Footloose, Grease, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Other roles include, Anne in The Diary of Anne Frank, Mayzie in Seussical, Bebe in A Chorus Line, Rizzo in Grease, Liesel in The Sound of Music, and I also understudied Mimi in RENT at Keegan Theatre, and got to go on for a performance. My favorite role so far is Anne Frank. It was an honor to portray such an amazing young woman whose story continues to live on and inspire people all over the world.
Jesaira: I started performing professionally (meaning getting a paycheck) in 2007, and I’ve been in Grease (Ms. Lynch/Teen Angel), Dreamgirls (JoAnne), Sophisticated Ladies (one of the Featured Soloist), and in Ain’t Misbehavin as Nell Carter (twice). My favorite role so far is Motormouth Mabel, and it’s because I feel as though it has given me an opportunity to show my ability to act as well as sing.
Joel: Why is Hairspray so popular?
Celia: Hairspray follows the old-fashioned musical plot outline: girl gets boy, girl looses boy, girl and boy get back together and live happily ever after. Tracy is not your average leading lady so it’s nice to see her come out on top in the end. Hairspray is the type of show that leaves the audience smiling as they dance in their seats
MaryLee: Hairspray is so popular because everyone can relate to it and it’s just fun. People want to see fun, exciting, and flashy shows, and Hairspray gives you all of that. It also has a great message and makes your heart feel good.
Jesaira: I believe Hairspray is so popular because of the message of hope, love, and genuine acceptance, something that the world so desperately needs!
Joel: Which role that you haven’t played yet, would you kill to play?
Celia: I guess I need to come up with a new dream role to play. I enjoy comedic character roles. I would love to play Fiona in Shrek one day. When I saw it on Broadway I felt myself become that little 11 year old girl again, wanting to be up there. Fiona is sweet and sassy and I’m kinda obsessed with the song “I Think I’ve Got You Beat” at the moment. It’s hilarious! I think later in my life I would love to play Mama Rose in Gypsy. I mean what belter wouldn’t love to play that role?! Also if anyone is doing Neil Labute’s play Fat Pig sometime soon – call me!
MaryLee: I would kill to play Roxie Hart in Chicago. Ashlee Simpson watch out!
Jesaira: WOW!! Sophia in The Color Purple and maybe Effie in Dreamgirls. I believe I would make a great Sophia, and I am up for the challenge!
Joel: Why should local theatre goers come to Columbia to Toby’s to see this wonderful production of Hairspray?
Celia: I got the chance to sit out and watch one of the shows while my understudy Ariel went on. As an actor, I’ve gone to see shows and been so mesmerized by the production that it makes me miss being on the stage. Hairspray is one of those shows. I actually got emotional during “Nicest Kids In Town” because I was watching this amazing show and I wanted to be up there so bad. Then I realized, wait a minute, I’m actually in this show! I play off of the other leads every show, so I spent more time watching the ensemble. Every single one of them has something special. The characters that they’ve developed (even down to the mother/daughter relationships in “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now”) are a joy to watch. Everyone is having so much fun on stage. Mix that with larger than life characters, peppy music, and energetic dancing, Hairspray is definitely worth seeing!
MaryLee: Toby’s production of Hairspray gives you so much more than just big hair, big personalities, and big musical numbers. It gives you a trip back in time to the 1960’s Baltimore. Since Toby’s Columbia is theatre-in-the-round, you feel so connected to the characters and get to experience the change from black and white to color – right in front of your eyes. No other production will give you that – I guarantee! We run until August 1st, so there is no excuse!
Jesaira: Well, they should see it because I’m in it, first and foremost! LOL! On a serious note, it is a GREAT cast with GREAT energy and REAL enthusiasm. It’s a display of real talent! We have great direction from Toby Orenstein and wonderful choreography from Mark Minnick, great music from Brant Challacombe, and creative costuming from Larry Munsey. It’s a great artistic team, and the camaraderie is there and it SHOWS!!! You can’t STOP the beat!!
Hairspray plays through August 1, 2010 at Toby’s – The Dinner Theatre of Columbia. For more information, click here.