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It's Shul Time for 'Hairspray'
Jay Leistner is getting in touch with his feminine side.
All 300 pounds of it.
An architect and interior designer who runs his own company in Jenkintown, Leistner has designs on what may be the role of his lifetime: Edna, the hefty housewife and heroine of Hairspray, the award-winning Broadway musical with a history of untraditional casting that puts a man in padding, places him in a moo-moo and sends him out on stage in the mother of all cross-dressing roles.
Whoever makes the best of the Hairspray schpritz appeal doesn't matter; they're steeling themselves for capacity crowds at Gratz College in Melrose Park, where the show (for tickets, go to: www.bethsholomplayers.org) will be staged on Feb. 9, 11 and 12.And talk about untraditional: Three shuls and a musical? Leistner is part of a congregational production team -- Beth Sholom Congregation, Congregation Adath Jeshurun, both of Elkins Park; and Congregation Beth El of Mt. Airy -- involving more than 100 participants, including a gospel chorus line of actors and one of the leads from Beth El, a black Jewish congregation.
Based on the 2002 Tony Award-winning smash set in 1960s Baltimore, where dancers on an American Bandstand-style TV show ultimately take a stand against segregation -- with black and white kids twisting on stage to the tortured takes of some of their less-than-enlightened parents -- Hairspray has hissable villains and honorable heroes.
And a lesson or two about tikkun olam.
As notes Beth Sholom's Harvey Perelman -- co-producer of the synagogues' show along with Adath Jeshurun's Lana Dishler -- the musical missive integrates themes of working together and "seeing people for what and who they are."
Perelman has seen a lot in his role as producer of 13 of the 20 shows Beth Sholom has staged over the years. Integrating Beth El members into the project is a novel but not seminal effort: Its members also took part in last season's Beth Sholom Players staging of the religious-oriented Children of Eden.
This is no garden variety effort: Indeed, members from all the synagogues of the Old York Road corridor had been invited to audition for roles, making the musical a cooperative Kehillah effort.
As for hairstyles, Afros come naturally to Hairspray as does the inclusion of Beth El members in the cast: The musical calls for African-Americans to take part in "Negro Day," the show's once-a-week TV show that Baltimore's young black kids kick to.
As he combs through the list of actors, Perelman is enthusiastic, offering effusive praise for Mindy Rubinlicht as Tracy Turnblad who, he says, turns in a winning performance -- even if he does have a gripe with one bit of casting. "Jay," he says of Edna the Enormous, "is not a very pretty woman."
Who ya lookin' for -- Julia Roberts? retorts Leistner in similar spirited style.
He's played Tevye and Daddy Warbucks -- but no big Momma before, with the actor conceding "this is somewhat outside my comfort zone."
Yes, "Edna is larger than life," says Leistner, but that's what makes it so much fun.
"I've enjoyed stretching myself theatrically," the Montco resident says of his brush with fem fame.
The show is also a nice stretch for Joy Twiggs, who is making her debut in a communal musical role. Twiggs concedes she's going out on a limb -- but those who have heard her sound off as Motormouth, the hortatory host of "Negro Day" in the show, say she has made the role -- and the Motown sound -- her own.
A loud, brash bullhorn of a woman, Motormouth "complements Joy," says Twiggs, a 35-year-old teacher at the city's Kinsey School who has taken part in skits and plays at Beth El, where she is "busy trying to do mitzvot every day."
The contagious camaraderie Twiggs and her fellow actors share on stage, she says, makes it all feel like "a big family reunion. It is an awesome, awesome feeling."