Starring on stage

I think I was entering my senior year in high school when I was strongly recruited by some friends to be in a play. Someone — I’m not sure who — had to drop out of a production of “Harvey,” and I was asked to consider filling in.

While I couldn’t help but be flattered by my peers wanting me to take the stage with them, there was no way I could accept their request. For one thing, learning lines and assuming the role of a character, and then performing in front of a group of people, was pretty much a non-starter at that point of my life. The fact that I also had to kiss a girl in this show was also a severe hindrance. At that juncture of my adolescence, any kissing or romance was only a little less imaginary then the rabbit at the center of “Harvey”’s plot.

It was my sophomore year of college when, thanks to some friends, I wound auditioning for and getting a part in a play called “Lovers and Other Strangers.” I played a man who, along with his wife, has to tell his parents they’re getting divorced. (Off stage, much to my chagrin, I had about as much chance at getting together with her as my husband character did.) Nevertheless, the show was fun, and I must have done OK because I was told to continue to try out for future shows.

Looking back, my theatrical debut wasn’t all that terrifying, but I also don’t think I had a very challenging — or significant — part to play. It was, in short, nothing compared to some of the outstanding performances pulled off Thursday through Sunday in the Worthington High School production of “Hairspray.”

So many people did a wonderful job in the show, but I can’t help but keep coming back to one individual who made a remarkable impression on me — Caleb Dirksen.
I’d worked with Caleb, who seems like he should be well beyond the age of someone who’s a senior in high school — during the summer 2012 production of “Beauty and the Beast.” Caleb played the role of Lefou, the goofy, oafish minion of Gaston, and he threw himself completely in the part of a buffoon. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Here’s a guy who isn’t afraid to look silly on stage,” and it showed in his performance.

This past weekend, Caleb came up even bigger. After all, how many high-school-senior males would want to don a fat suit AND dress in drag for a play? In the role of Edna Turnblad, Caleb camped it up big-time and held nothing back. There’s no way I could’ve taken that role when I was in his age — heck, I couldn’t take it now.

Of course, there were so many other great performances in “Hairspray,” too. Perhaps even greater than the individuals — on stage and behind the scenes — involved in the production, though, was the show’s overall message. As the heroine, Tracy Turnblad, and friends fight to get non-whites included on an “American Bandstand”-style TV program, and the importance of celebrating diversity and individual uniqueness is constantly stressed. What an absolutely awesome message for a group of Worthington High School students to convey!

I’m not sure if or when I’ll take a stage again — it can require a lot of time and work, and I’ve got a lot of other things on my plate. Perhaps, someday, I’ll sit in an audience with wife and laugh, smile and be proud at Grace or Zachary doing something outlandish, moving or both. (Zach, with his propensity for creating his own version of Tom Cruise’s famous living room dance in “Risky Business,” seems like the likeliest candidate). Both of them, I can’t help but think, might just have it in ’em.

But for now, I’ll look back on the just-wrapped-up production of “Hairspray” and give a massive thumbs-up.

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