How a Musical is Changing Perceptions About Disabilities, Including Mine

Caregivers wheeled Luke Hogan Laurenson and me into the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theater: me with muscular dystrophy to my seat; him with cerebral palsy onto the stage for his role in Hairspray. By the musical’s finale – an uptempo collective promise for social progress – we would both be assisted onto our feet, exuberant with joy. Neither of us were cured of the currently incurable. We didn’t need to be. Instead, we were mutually inspired by the force of a modern musical to see and be seen as just a normal member of any community, including the theater community. We were joined by audience members and actors, those with and without disabilities, who support social equality; those who are willing to make sacrifices to ensure diversity and inclusion everywhere; and those who, given the opportunity, will happily dance their way to victory.

Yes, a Broadway musical can do all that. This production certainly does anyway. Here’s how:

People with disabilities make up the largest minority of the population. Hairspray highlights themes about minority integration and acceptance. Unlike other productions and both movie versions, OSF’s Hairspray casts several differently-abled actors, including actors with autism and special needs, filling the stage with a reflection of real life and real talent, and making a real impact. Director Christopher Liam Moore is quoted as saying, “Everyone, but everyone, deserves the space to dance and to sing.” His diverse casting emphasizes Hairspray’s Corny Collins, a 1962 TV dance show host played by Matthew Ranaudo (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young David Cassidy,) when he pronounces, “It’s time to put kids on the show who look like the kids who watch the show.” From my wheelchair watching Luke in his wheelchair as a dynamic, meaningful member of this show, and surrounded by a cast who obviously enjoyed working with him, enriched the thematic narrative and made my heart swell with an intoxicating mix of empowerment and gratitude.

Impromptu post-performance conversations and photo-ops with OSF actors, their family or caregivers are not uncommon and enhance the communal experience of attending productions in small but creatively mighty Ashland. After an August matinee of Hairspray, Jenna Bainbridge, who plays teenybopper Penny Pingleton with fantastic comic timing, shared with us her experience of living and working with a disability. She rightly assessed the surprisingly high number of people with a disability, which obviously includes actors, and advocates on their behalf. This woman’s positive mindset and powerful performance prove that “you can’t stop the beat” no matter how one mobilizes.

Hairspray is not OSF’s first demonstration of honoring its organization value of diversity and inclusion (but certainly one of its best.) Gifted actors with disabilities have graced their boards in Cymbeline (2013,) Much Ado About Nothing (2015,) Henry IV, Part 1 and 2 (2018,) and in the current season’s production of All’s Well That Ends Well, that I have seen at the festival anyway; there are no doubt many more such examples — with more to follow I sincerely hope.

As with OSF’s Oklahoma! last year, Hairspray is a pure joy to witness, again and again. (We saw it five – count em’ five – times during our annual visit.) The ensemble’s singing, dancing, technicolor costumes and comic timing hit every mark, every minute. Most uplifting, however, is the casting of talented actors who are differently-abled, not just as politically correct props, but as meaningful additions to the important social messages that the play highlights. Bravo, Baltimore! Bravo, OSF! Thank you for being a light in the darkness, especially for those of us dancing and singing a little differently.

Hairspray plays thru October 27, 2019. (Tickets)

Accessibility at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Read)

Oregon Shakespeare Festival
15 S Pioneer St, Ashland, OR 97520

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The above post was emailed to: Oregon Shakespeare Festival, OSF Access Services Coordinator.



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