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Hairspray musical has plenty of extra-hold staying power

You can't stop the beat and you can't stop the smash-hit musical "Hairspray."

Seven years after the show opened on Broadway and two years after a John Travolta film version hit the silver screen, the stage production still is drawing big audiences around the country.

As of midweek, the national tour nearly had sold out its first two of four performances at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto next weekend.

"It's one of the best family shows that has been written in years," said Ryan Cowles, who understudies four of the young dancers on "The Corny Collins Show," a fictional TV show within the musical.

Based on a 1988 John Waters movie, the musical follows chunky teen Tracy Turnblad as she wins TV stardom and the heart of a cute boy while fighting racial injustice in 1962 Baltimore.

The show features a get-up-and-dance score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and an uplifting book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. It won eight Tony Awards, including best musical.

Produced by Network Presentations, the touring show features a 30-person cast, an 11-piece orchestra and a 12-person crew. The production is identical to the Broadway original, with all the same sets, costumes and choreography, Cowles said in a phone interview from a tour stop in El Paso.

Cowles, who grew up in Walnut Creek, is listed as a "swing" on the program and covers the roles of Brad, Fender, IQ and Sketch if any of the main performers are injured or sick. He attends every performance ready to go and estimates he has appeared in at least 25 shows since the group hit the road in September.

"My day, I never know what's going to happen," he said. "I watch the show nightly. I'm in the wings doing the choreography, so it doesn't become stale and I don't forget movements."

He said that keeping track of four roles is the hardest thing he has ever done. When he first got the job, he was surprised that actors can really pull it off. One day, he had to play Fender at the matinee and then Brad at 8 p.m.

"It's such a unique opportunity," Cowles said. "You learn a lot about your capabilities as an actor, as a performer. It's made me stronger and smarter. My confidence has gone up."

Cowles, 25, said it's a dream come true that he got in the national tour. He grew up watching the original 1988 film and was a huge fan of performers Ricki Lake and Debbie Harry. When he heard it was made into a stage musical, he immediately bought the soundtrack. He decided right away that he wanted to be in the show at some point -- even if it was only at a tiny community theater.

Cowles said he thinks the show succeeds because it has such a likable character. Tracy is a 16-year-old girl who doesn't set out to change the world but only wonders why white and black kids can't dance together on the same TV show.

"I think the story of the underdog is timeless," Cowles said. "It's an encouraging show with a positive message -- acceptance."