The cast of Liberty University’s production of “Hairspray” is taking full advantage of its new digs, a state-of-the-art theater inside the tallest building on campus.
The stage is bigger than their former home, the Lloyd Theater, with an extra piece that juts out past the orchestra pit and into the audience.
It’s a heavily traveled path. Main character Tracy Turnblad drags her best friend Penny across it, racing home to catch “The Corny Collins Show,” an “American Bandstand” rip-off they’re both obsessed with.
Corny himself dances across it in a pair of purple patent leather shoes, and heartthrob Linc Larkin serenades the crowd — and Tracy — on it later on in the play, after she’s joined the show as its newest dancer.
“It kind of feels like Broadway,” says Sarah Seaman, the senior theater major who plays Tracy. “The lights are everywhere. The acoustics are awesome. It’s a dream come true.”
“Now you have to really be your character,” she adds, spreading her arms out wide, “or the stage will swallow you up.”
The $7 million Tower Theater, located inside a former Ericsson building, was a long time in the making for the college’s theater department.
Linda Nell Cooper, department chairwoman, says they’d been using the Lloyd for 30 years and outgrew it about five years ago.
The need became even more obvious after they created a theater major in 2006 — with a “graduating class of one,” she says — and saw it grow to 152 students this year.
The solution? Build a bigger, better theater. And, while they were at it, throw in a few extra touches to make it “as modern as you can get,” she said.
Features include a full orchestra pit; balcony seating; a state-of-the-art control room; more backstage space, including a rehearsal room that’s the same size as the stage and a scene shop that’s three times as big as their old one; and acoustic panels that will allow them to do Shakespeare plays without electronic enhancement.
The panels, spread out along the walls in a pattern, appear more like a design element than a functional one.
“They look like kites to me,” said Cooper, who has been at LU since 1997. “They have an energy about them.”
The cherry on top of the proverbial sundae is the 85-foot tall, electronically operated fly tower that can accommodate sets and backdrops for Broadway-sized productions.
The elimination of ropes and pulleys in the fly tower system means they can control the speed at which set pieces are flown in and out, keeping it consistent every time.
“It’s great for our students,” Cooper said. “This is their lab. We’re preparing them to step on professional stages, and how can you if you don’t have a laboratory like this to study in?”
The new space seats 640 people, compared to the Lloyd’s 250, But, by Cooper’s design, there doesn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house.
“What our audience loved about (the Lloyd) was the fact that it was intimate,” she says.
“They could see every nuance the actors were putting into the performance. I didn’t want to lose that.”
What they’re gaining is the ability to do big shows like “Hairspray,” which follows heavyset heroine Tracy Turnblad as she fights not only perceptions about body image but also segregation in 1960s Baltimore.
It opens with a sold-out show Friday and continues through October 9.
“I like the fact that it’s about a young woman who is not perfect in the world’s eye … but she doesn’t let that deter her from (following) her dreams,” Cooper said. “Instead, she helps everyone else overcome their challenges, and I just think that’s a great message.”
The large cast — full of all genders, races and sizes — was also appealing to her.
“I thought, ‘What better way to open the theater than to show the diversity of the department?’”
After Tracy wins a spot on Corny’s show, she battles prima donna Amber and her evil mother, fights for the show to be integrated and finds romance with Linc.
“I love her zest for life, that nothing’s an obstacle (for her),” said Seaman, who has dreamed of playing the role since she was in high school. “She’s confident in who she is, take it or leave it.”
Cooper said Seamen is “made for the part. Her smile just warms you and charms you, and her voice just floats in here.”
The rest of Liberty’s season will roll out as usual, with about one show a month through the end of the school year. Also on tap: “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” in October and November; “A Christmas Carol” in December; “The Civil War,” a large-scale musical timed with Liberty’s Civil War seminar, in February; “Enchanted April” in March and April; and “The Phantom of the Opera,” the one show Cooper always said she’d do if she wasn’t in the Lloyd Theater, in April and May.
“We decided we were going to do (shows) we’ve never done before,” Cooper said, “because we can.”