“Hairspray” brings the ‘60s back to Buffalo

UB students showcase their talents in award-winning musical


Buffalo’s production of “Hairspray” brings something to the musical that professional performances don’t typically see.

A student-filled cast.

Courtesy of Gene Witkowski

Stills from the production of Hairspray now showing at The Kavinoky Theatre.

“Hairspray,” despite the uncharacteristically young team, radiated an exuberant energy between the cast and audience that resonated throughout the house.

On Sept. 6, a new production of the musical opened at the Kavinoky Theatre. The musical originally premiered in Seattle in 2002 and is based on the 1988 film “Hairspray.” The story takes place in 1962 in Baltimore and follows plus-sized teenager Tracy Turnblad who fought to become a dancing star on The Corny Collins Show. She uses her newfound fame to fight for racial integration on the show, even though it could cost her everything. The Buffalo production includes talent from UB –– with two current students in the production –– and runs until Oct. 6.

While the show is off-campus, UB students still made their way into the cut. Hannah Keller, a senior music theatre major, is in the ensemble and actors Kevin Kennedy, Kevin Cusi and Alexandria Watts are all UB alumni.

Courtesy of Gene Witkowski

Stills from the production of Hairspray now showing at The Kavinoky Theatre.

Jamil Kassem-Lopez, a sophomore music theatre major, performs a leading role and truly held his own among the veteran actors.

As Tracy’s love interest Link Larkin, Kassem-Lopez transformed himself from a UB student to a professional actor by demonstrating his strong stage presence and incredible vocals. 

Kassem-Lopez landed the role with the help of a teacher recommendation shortly after his audition, and he said he is happy to have the opportunity.

“It is an awesome show and an amazing opportunity to work professionally outside of school. I could never turn down such a big opportunity,” Kassem-Lopez said. “It’s really exciting. I get to do what I love every single night and embrace a completely different person.”

Courtesy of Gene Witkowski

Stills from the production of Hairspray now showing at The Kavinoky Theatre.

Actors tackled the 1960s-style, vigorous choreography and complicated chords with ease. 

Allan Paglia, the music director, said the production has surprisingly been more difficult than he expected, specifically citing difficulties with the pit at the Kavinoky Theatre –– which is in a separate room from the house.  

“[The musical] seemed like it was going to be an easy one because it was pretty standard music,” Paglia said. “But there’s so much ensemble singing [with] so many music verses … and all these little very similar parts [that are] also different at the same time. … It’s a very deceptively hard score to learn.”  

Paglia said having younger cast members also complicated the process of learning music.

Courtesy of Gene Witkowski

Stills from the production of Hairspray now showing at The Kavinoky Theatre.

“They’re not as tenured or seasoned as some of the older actors. So, it’s a little bit harder to get them together and do what they need to do to get the right sound,” Paglia said. “[Regardless], it has turned out really well.”

One of the professional actors, Lorenzo Shawn Parnell, left attendees in tears with his Aretha Franklin-esque vocals. Parnell, who plays Motormouth Maybelle, seemed to test the limits of the Kavinoky Theatre’s sound system during Maybelle’s signature song “I Know Where I’ve Been,” his voice traveling through the audience, rather than just moving through the space around them.

Kassem-Lopez said he loved having the opportunity to work with older actors.

“I love every single one of them,” Kassem-Lopez said. “They are so knowledgeable and passionate about their craft that it is inspiring to see them work.” 

Courtesy of Gene Witkowski

Stills from the production of Hairspray now showing at The Kavinoky Theatre.

UB students make up more than just cast members for the production. 

The video designer for the show, Brian Milbrand, graduated from UB in 2002 with a media studies degree. For this show, Milbrand worked to find, create and produce the videos and images that appeared on the LED curtains on the backdrop of the stage.

“It’s the first time that we have really broken [the projections] up into modular-like tiny screens, which has been interesting to work out,” Milbrand said.

Instead of doing the projection on scrims like he has in other shows, Milbrand used the LED curtains to give the videos a pixelated aesthetic to emanate the ‘60s-vibes in the production. Along with looking in the archives for videos and photos, Milbrand shot some of the footage himself.

“Probably the most enjoyable thing about working on the show for me was getting [to go to] Baltimore. So, a lot of the footage was actually shot out in Baltimore,” Milbrand said.

With all the new members in both the cast and crew for this show, production manager Norman Sham was glad to see the success of the production so far.

“[With] so many new things, so much could go wrong and they were very close to doing that,” Sham said. “But they sort of hit a groove last week, and it’s starting to hit its stride now.”

Kassem-Lopez is excited to see what the production brings in upcoming performances.

“This show can only grow and I’m so excited to see where it goes,” Kassem-Lopez said. “I’m really hoping that the energy we are at never dwindles and that the message is always received.”

Anastasia Wilds is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at anastasia.wilds@ubspectrum.com and on twitter @AnastasiaWilds 


Anastasia Wilds is an asst. arts editor.