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  • Writer's picturePenny Neef

Big Hair, Don’t Care – Hairspray at Chrysler Hall

Words by Penny Neef. Images by Jeremy Daniel.

The John Waters movie, Hairspray, was already retro when it premiered in 1988. Set in the swinging 60’s, it’s the story of Baltimore teen, Tracy Turnblad, and her dream to dance on a local TV dance show, The Corny Collins Show. Are you picking up all the alliteration? There’s more to come.

Hairspray, the touring company of the Broadway musical, will be at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk next weekend, December 17 - 19 in all its retro revelry. This show is so much fun.

Hairspray opened on Broadway in 2002. It ran for over 2,000 shows, winning eight Tony Awards, including the Tony for Best Musical. The national tour will be in Norfolk next week. What a great time to come back to Chrysler Hall for a live performance. What a great show for the whole family to enjoy.

The national tour of Hairspray will stop in over 60 cities this time around. Andrew Levitt, aka Nina West from Ru Paul’s Drag Race, will take on the traditionally male role of Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s agoraphobic mom. Niki Metcalf plays Tracy Turnblad, and Toneisha Harris, season 18 runner-up from The Voice plays Motormouth Maybelle, who is loud and proud.

I had the opportunity to interview Emery Henderson, who plays Tracy’s BFF, Penny Pingleton. Penny is “slightly dorky”, but loves big hair and dancing, and The Corny Collins Show, just like Tracy. She also loves Maybelle’s son, Seaweed Stubbs. This is a bit of a problem for Penny’s mom, who does not want her daughter associating with black people.

Emery Henderson says that Hairspray is a bit of a history lesson as Tracy, Penny, Seaweed and their friends take on the big issue of integrating The Corny Collins Show, which only allows black people to dance on the show at the once a month “Negro Day”. On top of fighting racism, the show also takes on issues surrounding body image. Edna Turnblad doesn’t leave the house partly because she feels too fat. She tries to shield her chubby daughter, Tracy, from the remarks of others, but Tracy has big hair and does not care.

Penny Pengleton has a very strict homelife. Henderson says, “Black people, music, and dancing are all not okay with her (Penny’s) mother. That was what Penny was taught, but it’s not what she believes. Penny spreads the love every night in Hairspray. She shows people that you can love who you want to love, and support the people you love.”

Emery Henderson has been singing and dancing since she was seven years old. She attended Boston Conservatory for two years, and then decided to try her luck in New York. When the pandemic hit, she went back home for 6 months and worked all sorts of jobs – nanny, dog walker, and sales associate. When things eased up in New York, she returned, and became a production assistant on The Blacklist and Law & Order: SVU.

Henderson waited in a line at 5:00 am that wrapped around the block for the open call audition of Hairspray. She was in the last group of people that auditioned at 5:00 pm. Actors had 30 seconds to audition. She didn’t hit the note she wanted to hit, and asked to start over. She got the part of Penny. The national tour of Hairspray started in San Diego in November with an indefinite end.

I get the impression that Emery Henderson hopes this tour never ends. She says there is no scene in this show that is without laughter. The cast feeds off the laughter and the love every night. She feels as though they are “bringing back the joy of this collective human experience that is live theater.” Hairspray is “so human and so joyful.” It is chock full of 60’s dance music, downtown R&B, line dances, and great big hair. What could be more joyful than that?

For more information and to purchase tickets, go to

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