“Here. Feel these. I don’t know how women do it,” says Robert Aubry Davis, offering me a squeeze of his size 54 EEE breasts—each one roughly the pendulous shape and heft of a Hubbard squash, but actually fashioned from bags of millet.
Mr. Davis has to strap on these babies eight times a week, along with cha-cha heels, skyscraper wigs, and false eyelashes thicker than a woolly caterpillar. At the age of 62, Mr. Davis is throwing over the hoity-toity world of classical music and opera commentary to make his professional theatrical debut as Edna Turnblad, the housebound Baltimore “Hon” who bursts out of her shell with the help of her terpsichorean, plus-sized daughter Tracy in the John Waters musical Hairspray that plays at Signature Theater through Jan 29.
With this role, Mr. Davis steps into the bow-front pumps worn by the esteemed drag queen Divine in the original 1988 movie, as well as Harvey Fierstein, Michael McKean and George Wendt on Broadway beginning in 2002 and John Travolta in the popular 2007 musical film adaptation.
Hairspray combines civil rights with a beat you can dance to in its depiction of a segregated society in 1962 Baltimore that learns to move to more progressive rhythms once Tracy (Carolyn Cole) and her friends vow to integrate “The Corny Collins Show,” a local teen dance party program.
Despite sore feet and jitters that raise his trademark mellifluous broadcast voice a few octaves, Mr. Davis insists this later-in-life career reinvention was a sound decision. “I am a person of music, not a person of musicals. I am more a devotee of the troubadour age of songwriting—Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen—than Broadway,” said the host of the arts criticism show, WETA’s “Around Town,” public radio’s “Millennium of Music,” and other music programs on XM/Sirius radio during a pre-dress rehearsal coffee break in Shirlington. “Still, I am giving this everything I have. So far, I have no regrets.”
Eric Schaeffer, the show’s director and artistic director at Signature who has known Mr. Davis for decades, waged an 18-month campaign to persuade Mr. Davis to consider playing Edna. “He has this eye,” Mr. Davis said. “I never would have thought of it myself, never in a million years. I can envision the surface of Mars with better clarity than I can imagine playing Edna Turnblad.”
Mr. Schaeffer wanted Mr. Davis—and that was that. But Mr. Davis had one condition—he wanted veteran Signature actor Harry Winters to play his husband, Wilbur. “If I am kissing on a man, I want it to be someone I am comfortable with” he said. “I lean on Harry all the time.”
The director agreed and cast both Mr. Winters and Mr. Davis—having never heard the latter sing, not that it matters since the role’s originator on Broadway, Harvey Fierstein, has a voice like a cement mixer. Mr. Davis admits to a light, dulcet tenor, much in keeping with the folksy vibe of the ‘60s troubadour heroes that he celebrated for 15 years as co-host for the WETA radio program “Songs for Aging Children,” which in turn inspired “The Village,” currently on XM/Sirius.
It is these hippie roots that motivated Mr. Davis to agree to the role. “For John Waters, Hairspray is not just a love letter to the people of Baltimore, but as he says in his notes for the musical, 1962 was a terrible, oppressive time—for blacks, for women, for gays, for people of size. So I wanted to do the show as a tribute to women—because I’ve always been appreciative of women and love women. Also as a tribute to the civil rights movement—because I was there and I remember how it was. And lastly, as a tribute to portly people—because you have to be fat to know this part.”
Mr. Davis, a Washington native, experienced first-hand what “pleasingly plump” Tracy Turnblad goes through when trying to get a chance to shake her stuff on “The Corny Collins Show.” “In DC, there was a local teen dance party show called ‘The Milt Grant Show’ and they had junior high day,” he remembered. “I wasn’t chosen because I was fat. So that line where Miss Van Tussle says ‘Nobody wants to see a fat girl dance’ really stings me.”
Another early blow was in 1962, when Mr. Davis won a Johnny Mathis record—first prize in a twist contest at school. “The kids teased me so mercilessly that I never danced again—not even at weddings,” he said. Now, he is executing the Madison, the Swim, the Watusi and other discoteque-style moves, sometimes 12 hours a day during rehearsal. “I am the only person in the company not superb in my profession—and that is a profoundly humbling experience,” he noted, adding, “I confessed my misgivings to [choreographer] Karma Camp and she said ‘If I can make Pat Carroll look like she can dance—and her knees are shot—I can make you dance.’”
The self-described “last fat man on TV” is now boogalooing with the best of them and says he is serving as a time capsule of sorts to the young cast, who may not get the musical’s references to the diet drink Metrecal, Gina Lollabridgida and the significance of Krushchev banging his shoe at the UN.
“I also want to remind people that back in the early 60s, there were portly people of dignity in show business—Orson Welles, Sebastian Cabot, Burl Ives. Now, big people in TV and movies are pure comedy—what happened?” he asks.
To him, Edna Turnblad is not an overweight object of derision, but a product of her time. “That she never left the house and ran her laundry and ironing business out of her home was very typical of being a portly person in that era,” he said. “She’s not a shut-in or an agoraphobic, but someone who wore housedresses and mu-mus because there probably weren’t a lot of clothes in stores for big women to buy. There was a stigma about weight then—fat people were mostly hidden away, they did not go out and about.”
For that reason, he sympathizes with Edna and revels in her liberation. “There’s something about being dowdy and then being transformed by clothes and make-up and suddenly feeling fabulous that resonates within me,” he said. “[Actor] Emily Townley gave me great advice about Edna’s big transformation at the end. She said, ‘When you walk out in that dress, you will make every woman you have ever known happy.’ That was the key for me.”
He also identifies with Edna’s relationship with Tracy. “I am a parent and I understand that devotion to a child,” Mr. Davis said. “Edna is being hauled into the present and future by her daughter and Carolyn is so magnetic as Tracy I feel myself being dragged along too.”
Speaking of children, how do Mr. Davis’ offspring—daughter Fayre and son Patrick—feel about their Dad in drag? “My daughter is totally on board and my son is 19 and all boy all the time. He wanted a Bruce Willis type of father,” he mused. “But when I asked him about my playing Edna he said ‘Being your child, it was more like being raised by two mothers anyway’ so for him it was no big deal.”
The Davis children will be front and center opening night, along with his wife Patty, who saw the experience as a way for her husband to re-invent the rest of his life. “This is the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life—and I worked construction and was a waiter in a fancy-schmantzy restaurant,” he said. “But I still believe in the magic of theater. I literally still close my eyes between scenes so I can be surprised.”