Vilanch might be next Edna Turnblad


Comic in talks to join tour of `Hairspray'

Theater Column

January 30, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

First there was Divine - the larger-than-life, cross-dressing star who created the role of Bawlamer matriarch Edna Turnblad in John Waters' 1988 movie Hairspray. Then Harvey Fierstein donned Edna's wig in the hit Broadway musical version. Now there's word that Bruce Vilanch is the front-runner to walk in Edna's high heels in the touring production.

Margo Lion, the musical's Baltimore-born producer, said earlier this week that she and the show's co-producers are "in discussions" with Vilanch, although no contract has been signed.

Most widely recognized from his appearances on Hollywood Squares, the bespectacled, blond-bearded comic is also a veteran writer whose credits include that program as well as such televised awards shows as the Oscars and Emmys.

Vilanch, who attended a performance of Hairspray during the show's June tryout in Seattle, is a longtime friend of the musical's songwriters, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. In 2000, Shaiman directed Vilanch's one-man off-Broadway show, Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous.

Commenting on the idea of Vilanch as Edna, filmmaker Waters said, "As far as I know, nothing's definite yet. I think it's a great idea. But right now, it's like being almost pregnant."

According to Lion, most of the other major roles for the touring production were cast during auditions in Los Angeles earlier this month. Hairspray will launch its national tour at the Mechanic Theatre in September.

Caitlin Bell acknowledges that the three historic Baltimore figures on whom she based on her one-act play Three Jewish Lives may have never been in the same place at the same time.

But there were connections. Ella Gutman Hutzler - daughter of one Baltimore department store owner and wife of another - knew Henrietta Szold, who founded Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. Szold, in turn, was a mentor and mother figure to Russian-born artist Saul Bernstein.

One night in November 1901, Szold had a showing of Bernstein's paintings at her Lombard Street home. Ella Hutzler's husband, David, bought one of the paintings. "Saul was studying in Paris at the time, but because his work was here, we took creative license and brought him back from Paris for one evening," explains Bell, a local playwright and arts educator.

Produced by the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Three Jewish Lives will be performed there at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Feb. 24. Because of Bernstein's background, the museum is billing the show as its contribution to Baltimore's Vivat! St. Petersburg festival. The cast consists of Bell's mother, Tana Hicken, in the role of Szold; Marsha Becker as Hutzler; and Joseph Corgan as Bernstein. Direction is by Bell and Harriet Lynn.

The impetus for Three Lives came from several separate impulses. The first was a walking tour of Baltimore's former department store district, led by Lynn, in the guise of Ella Hutzler. Conducted in October 2001 and April 2002 for the Jewish Museum, the tour was a typical project for Lynn, who heads the Baltimore-based Heritage Theater Artists' Consortium, which specializes in living history and museum theater.

In the course of her research, Lynn found herself increasingly drawn to Hutzler's contemporary, Szold, and she approached the museum about doing a project about the Baltimore-born Zionist leader.

Meanwhile, as part of its educational outreach, the museum had developed a trunk show about Bernstein that traveled to schools. "Inside the trunk were curricula to study his work," Bell says, "and they wanted to add a living history piece - an actor."

"Serendipity" is the word Lynn uses to describe the eventual blending of Bernstein, Szold and Hutzler's stories in Three Lives. Most of the research was conducted at the museum, whose archives include extensive correspondence between Szold and Bernstein.

Bell also finds the juxtaposition of Hutzler and Bernstein's lives dramatically rich. "[Hutzler's] normalcy with regard to the play makes it very interesting. Her life is very peaceful when you hold it up to Saul's, which is very complex, running from his homeland to America and feeling very displaced and homeless and alienated," she explains.

The play has given Bell an opportunity to work more closely, on a professional basis, than she ever has with her mother, an actress who was a longtime company member at Washington's Arena Stage and whose local credits include Center Stage and, more recently, Everyman Theatre. "She's teaching me a lot, and she's wonderful [at] making sure that nothing goes by without very careful understanding," Bell says of Hicken.

The museum has sent fliers about the show to Baltimore city and county schools, and Lynn hopes it will also find audiences at community centers and synagogues.

It's already prompted one unexpected but very welcome response. The museum was recently contacted by Bernstein's grandson, Peter, who learned about the project through the Internet. Bell and Lynn spent a day at his Alexandria, Va., home last week. Besides seeing examples of Saul Bernstein's artwork, they were shown family photographs and additional letters.

Bell had thought her research was complete. But now, she says, "This play could certainly have an Act 2."

Tickets to Three Jewish Lives, which is supported by the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Fund of the Associated, are $5 for general admission, free for museum members. Seating is limited, so reservations are suggested. The Jewish Museum of Maryland is at 15 Lloyd St. A conversation with the cast will follow the 6 p.m. performance. Call 410-732-6400.

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