You Can’t Stop the Beat at Toby’s Dinner Theatre: Meet the Nicest Kids in Town- Justin Calhoun and Christie Graham

You can’t stop the motion of the ocean or the rain from above— you can try to stop the paradise they’re dreaming of— but you cannot stop the rhythm of two hearts in love to stay! You can’t stop the final installment of the You Can’t Stop the Beat interview series, featuring Christie Graham and Justin Calhoun as Tracy Turnblad and Link Larkin! Read on, readers! Because they’re going to shake and shimmy it and have some fun today!

Thank you both for giving us a minute of your time— quick introductions and we’ll get underway!

Christie Graham, playing Tracy Turnblad in Toby's Hairspray 2016
Christie Graham, playing Tracy Turnblad in Toby’s Hairspray 2016

Christie Graham: I’m Christie Graham. I play Tracy Turnblad. This is sort of my area debut. I’m currently a junior at Catholic University. I’ve done some stuff there. I just finished doing the Witch in Into the Woods. That was super awesome.

Justin Calhoun: I’m Justin Calhoun, I play Link Larkin in this show. Some recent credits in this area include doing that interview with you for Gutenberg: The Musical. I played— oh what was his name? Shoot. Bud! Bud Davenport. Wow, that seems like years ago! So I played him, that was with Epic! Productions, and that was a wonderful experience. Other credits are here at Toby’s. I was in South Pacific, I was in Wonderful Life, all the way back up to 1776 which was about this time last year, maybe a little before, and then right after that was Into the Woods and Ragtime, boom, boom, boom, one on top of the other.

This is both of your first times doing Hairspray, yes?

Christie: This is not actually my first time. I did it in high school. I played Tammy. She’s one of the council girls.

Justin Calhoun, playing Link Larkin in Toby's Hairspray 2016
Justin Calhoun, playing Link Larkin in Toby’s Hairspray 2016

Justin: This is my first time doing it, though. I’d seen the movie, I’d never actually seen it done live on stage. I can’t really compare the movie to the stage production because they’re totally different, but I’m loving it, it’s totally a lot of fun.

Christie: Well this is for sure my first time doing it as an adult. And this is my first time playing Tracy. It’s been a blast.

What would you say are some of the challenges coming into a show like Hairspray here at Toby’s, where we have some seasoned veterans who have not only been ‘around the round’ but have been around some of these roles before?

Justin: I think the first thing that jumped out at me as a challenge for this show was being physically fit enough to sing and dance and just do the show eight times a week. There are no baritones. There are no bases. It’s all tenor. If you’re not a true tenor…I call it a faux-tenor…and I would definitely classify myself as a faux-tenor…it’s difficult. You have to get used to it, you have to get used to singing up there but then also running a marathon while doing it. I think rehearsal was a great experience just to get conditioned to be able to do the show. It can be very taxing. It’s wonderful, as you said, to have these seasoned vets who have not only done the show here but have just done the show multiple times. It’s nice because you can always rely on them to be solid with their stuff, which allows you to have more freedom and have more fun, where you can explore and feel safe in that environment of exploring.

Christie: Yeah, I mean it’s very physically demanding. And Tracy doesn’t really leave the stage. If she’s not dancing or singing she’s very excited about whatever’s happening on the stage so it’s definitely a lot of energy required to keep her going. The seasoned vets were super helpful. This is my first Toby’s show too and Toby’s operates differently than I’ve ever worked before, so I had a lot of questions. They were always super nice about answering them.

Justin, as you’ve said this is not your first Toby’s show, so we know it’s not your first show in the round. Christie, is this your first show in the round? What has that been like for you?

Christie: Yes it is. It took some getting used to, for sure. But once you get the hang of it, it’s super fun. Now I’m completely of the mind that Hairspray needs to be done in the round. I can’t picture it any other way. Mark (Director and Choreographer Mark Minnick) is so good about working that space. It’s just a really fun style to work in.

That’s the perfect segue to talk about Mark. Justin, you’ve done what, three shows now with Mark? And, Christie, this is your first. What has that experience been like?

Justin: I love it. I love working with Mark. He’s an awesome director because he knows what you can do. He casts you and then he expects you to do that but then he pushes you way beyond that. It’s never stopping. He always has this plan. “We’re going to work to this. Then we’re going to work to this. And then we’re going to work to this.” He takes you and he molds you and he pushes you, and pushes you, and pushes you. It’s great because there is no relaxing. You don’t relax into a role with Mark. Now, over time you relax into your part, but during the rehearsal process he definitely pushes you to be more than you thought you could, which is very rewarding. It’s nice to have a director who is not willing to accept the mundane. He pushes for his view of excellence, which is great.

Justin Calhoun (left) as Link Larkin and Christie Graham (right) as Tracy Turnblad during "It Takes Two"
Justin Calhoun (left) as Link Larkin and Christie Graham (right) as Tracy Turnblad during “It Takes Two” Jeri Tidwell

Christie: Mark is brilliant. I love working with Mark. He does push you but never in a discouraging way, always in a very encouraging way. It was definitely daunting coming into a cast of people who all sort of already knew it each other, actually who knew each other really well. I’m also substantially younger than everyone else. I was very nervous and he helped me overcome all of that and he pushed me farther than I honestly thought I could get with this role.

Justin: He’s always right there with you. He’s not a director who sits back in his chair, says what he wants, and then if you don’t do it he just says it again. He gets in there with you. He’s on stage working with you. It’s great.

Christie: He’s awesome.

Hairspray addresses some very heavy issues that people don’t often realize because of the extremely upbeat and overall happy nature of the show. One of the big ones is civil injustice. Do you think that the way the show addresses this issue is still relevant to today’s audience, is it still speaking to them?

Justin: Absolutely. I think there’s never been a time in which civil injustice hasn’t been an issue. It’s always something that needs to be addressed and talked about. As you said, Hairspray does have this bubbly sparkly appearance, but it does have the truth and the honesty underneath it of those underlying factors of social injustice and perceptions of people. I think it’s ingenious the way they created the show. It can appeal to people who only want to get the surface level of Hairspray, the fun, the fun songs and all that. But it also speaks to you, whether you recognize it or not, on a deeper level that talks about where we are in our society now, and where we were in the 60’s. It talks about how it’s changed but it hasn’t changed that much and it should change more. I think it’s still very relevant and still very powerful.

Christie: Yeah. I think maybe these days even more than a couple years ago the show feels very relevant. I think that’s what makes the show so rewarding to do. We always get very visceral reactions from the audience, especially during numbers like “I Know Where I’ve Been.” It really hits home with a lot of people and that as an actor is just so rewarding. To be able to give people a fun time and maybe make them think a little bit, it’s just so rewarding.

The other heavy issue that is addressed in this show is body-image, or more accurately body-image shaming and using physical appearance as a way to discriminate. Do you think that this topic is still prevalent today? Is it still relevant, does it factor into how performers get work or have we moved on past that issue?

Justin: It’s ever-present, especially in the performing community. One of the things about our industry is that you are supposed to look a certain way for certain roles. People have the idea of how a role should look or the way a role should sound because of that. I love how now in theatre we’re doing gender-blind and color-blind casting, and I think that’s great. I think it’s a really cool opportunity that we have now. So I think that body-image and the way it’s presented in this show is very relevant. I think that’s what makes this show so special, it speaks to everyone no matter where you are on the body-image scale. No matter how you go into this show, you leave it feeling like you’ve just run a marathon— in terms of physical fitness because it’s just such a demanding show— but because of that, I think everyone can get something out of it when it comes to addressing body image.

Christie: Oh yeah. I mean oh my gosh it’s super relevant. In theatre it’s all about the look, you know? As someone with curves, it’s definitely been super relevant to me. In school they tell me it’s all about the look and you have to find your type and all that based on your look. It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about a lot in recent years. Honestly, this show has helped me a little bit with acceptance and knowing yourself, which is the message of the show.

Do you have a moment that defines the show for you or that you would call your favorite?

Justin: Hmm.

Justin Calhoun (left) as Link Larkin and Christie Graham (right) as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray
Justin Calhoun (left) as Link Larkin and Christie Graham (right) as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray Jeri Tidwell

Christie: Favorite moment in this show…I think— can I give you my favorite songs to do? Because my favorite songs to do are “I Can Hear the Bells”, for sure, because I like staring at him while he’s frozen.

Justin: As I’m sweating profusely just being frozen. Literally dripping sweat just standing there.

Christie: But it’s so funny! That number is a fun one. And “You Can’t Stop the Beat” is exhausting but fun.

Justin: It’s fun though.

Christie: Yeah, exhausting and fun.

Justin: That show is a lot. It’s really a give and take between me and Christie for when we want to breathe. We have to sync up our catch-breaths. We take it off one another— “can I breathe here now? Okay, cool. You sing the words, I’ll breathe, and we’ll switch back and forth.”

Christie: Definitely.

Justin: My favorite song is actually not one I sing. “Hairspray” the song. I love that song. I’m not even in it. I sing it backstage but my mic’s turned off. I have nothing to do with that song but I love it. Favorite moments in the show…I would say…I mean I like all of my interactions as Link with all the other characters and getting to work with Christie and stuff.

Jeffrey Shankle (left) as Corny Collins and Darren McDonnell (right) as Harriman F. Spritzer with Justin Calhoun (directly behind McDonnell) as Link- "watching" those little moments on stage
Jeffrey Shankle (left) as Corny Collins and Darren McDonnell (right) as Harriman F. Spritzer with Justin Calhoun (directly behind McDonnell) as Link- “watching” those little moments on stage Jeri Tidwell

But I also really like— as Link— being able to watch and observe. There are times where I’m on stage for a whole song and I don’t say anything. I think that’s really special and kind of cool to watch the other talented actors that we have on stage and watch moments that you didn’t see before. There are leads, there are supporting, and there is ensemble. But I think everyone is as important as everyone else when you’re on that stage. And it’s so small and intimate that it’s fun to watch ensemble characters— like the ‘nicest kids’ or the ‘Motor Mouth kids’— watching them and watching all of those interactions that are taking place is great. There are special moments everywhere and they’re not necessarily happening in the focal points of the scene but they’re happening in the aisles. There are little scenes that are reacting to one thing or responding to something else; they have this cascading effect to the whole show and you can feel it when you’re all really synched together. There are tons of special moments all over this show and it’s nice just to look around and find them because they change every day.

What’s the dancing been like for this?

Christie: I am not a dancer.

Christie, are you what they call ‘an energetic mover?’

Christie: I would say that is an accurate statement of my dancing abilities. I am a mover, for sure. I have taken dance. I take tap and jazz and all of that as a musical theatre major, but I am not a dancer by any means. But Tracy is an energetic mover, I would say, so it works out. There is a lot of dancing.

Justin: There is a lot of dancing. It’s a Mark Minnick show. And I think Mark is smart with his choreo that he has people do. He knows the strengths of certain people, people who are more inclined and can do tumbling or people who are really good at picking up steps quickly. As Link, I would say that I am a strong mover. If you put me in a dance call against movers I look good. If you put me in a dance call against dancers I stand out as a mover. For me, it takes me longer to get the steps and get them right. When a director like Mark has the patience that he does, I feel like I will eventually get there. And I do. It was very daunting in the beginning, being such a heavy dance show, but I feel like we’ve all got it and now it’s fun.

Christie: Yeah, once it’s like in your body you can really have fun with it. I don’t have to think about it anymore, now I can just think about having fun with the choreo.

Justin: And the dancing becomes easier when you’re having fun. When you’re not stressing about where your hands are supposed to be because it’s really ingrained in your body, your mind frees up and it’s “Oh! I can really enjoy this now.”

Tracy has the big “Good Morning, Baltimore” number. What is it that gets you out of bed and going in the morning?

Christie: Coffee and my dog. Okay, it’s my grandma’s dog. It’s a four-month-old King Charles Cavalier. She’s very cute. Her name is Eliza but I just call her dog. She is my favorite. And definitely coffee. Always coffee. Whatever’s there for me to drink.

Justin: Dog! I have— he’s six and a half months now— a labradoodle. His name is Tucker. He is my boy. And I love him. He’s great. My morning starts with him because he usually wakes me up. He’s a tall little dude so he can just hop right up on the bed. Or he’ll just smack your feet until you wake up. And then he’s like “Hey. Let’s go do something.” He usually wants to play. He’ll go do his business, but then he wants to play before eating or anything else. That is what gets me up in the morning, Tucker is my good morning.

What are Christie and Justin’s favorite comfort foods and are they different from Tracy and Link’s favorite comfort foods?

Christie: Oh my gosh!

Justin: Hmm.

Christie: I think I’ll start with Tracy’s favorite comfort food. Actually I don’t even know, she probably has a few of them. One of them is probably chocolate chip cookies. I’m only saying that because there is a plate of fake chocolate chip cookies in her living room, so I’m guessing she probably likes those. For me, it would probably be…I really like Goldfish. Like cheddar flavor-blasted Goldfish. They are my favorite food ever.

Justin: Favorite food…this is hard. I have always been a sweet-tooth person, which I do not think Link is, so that’s one difference there. I have actually tried to be better about that especially with this show. My go-to comfort food? I love eating trail mix. Like seriously, any type. Mountain trail mix or berry trail mix. I love trail mixes. I love snacking on it. I also love Mexican food, which I don’t think Link would really be exposed to. I cannot see him sitting down to a nice taco. But I love it and I think it’s great. Trail mix on the go, dinner in a pinch, when Mexican food isn’t available. What would Link eat? Link…bland. What bland food is there? I think Link likes bland, that’s what I think. I’m thinking maybe pb&j’s? But I like pb&j’s…

Christie: I think Tracy would introduce Link to so many new, wonderful foods.

Justin: Yeah. I think—

You’ve said that and now I can just sort of picture Link with a bowl of porridge.

Justin: Porridge? Porridge. Um, Link is an oatmeal guy. He likes to be a little more normal than porridge.

Christie: Pre-Tracy.

Justin: Yes, pre-Tracy. His breakfast changed from porridge to ham and eggs.

Christie: Chicken and waffles.

Justin: Oh! Chicken and waffles! That is delicious. If we’re being honest here, that is a Justin food. Actually, I don’t think there is a food on the list that is not a Justin food. I will eat anything put in front of me. I do not discriminate with food.

Are you guys both Marylanders? How do we feel about crabs?

Justin: I am.

Christie: I’m not. I’m from New Jersey. I only moved here for school.

Justin Calhoun (above) as Link Larkin and Christie Graham (below) as Tracy Turnblad in Toby's Hairspray 2016
Justin Calhoun (above) as Link Larkin and Christie Graham (below) as Tracy Turnblad in Toby’s Hairspray 2016 Amanda N. Gunther

Justin: I think I have to contradict myself here, apparently I do discriminate with food. I’m a Marylander but I don’t do seafood. I do fish. Fish is the only seafood I have. I’m dropping that bomb right there. Boom. I’m that person who when other people are eating crabs— I’m narrating. “And now we see the eater dive into the carcass of the crab.” You know from those nature channels that you watch where the guy with the British accent and the slow drone starts describing the cheetah eating the gazelle, that’s what I think of when I think of people eating crabs. If you have to use a hammer to eat it? I don’t—

Christie: I think you’re thinking of lobster.

Justin: Oh no, trust me, I’ve seen hammers, chisels, axes, shovels…I mean…

Christie: I like crabs, I think I’m afraid to admit that now.

Justin: Well, I’ll just be narrating while you pick them. “As Christie dives into the meaty, shell-ridden carcass, ripping off the front left-claw of the specimen…”

Christie: Okay, I am never eating crabs in front of you!

How do we feel about chocolate?

Christie: Oh yeah!

Justin: Yes? I mean, I personally love dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is the best.

Christie: Better than milk chocolate?

Justin: Yes. Dark over milk. And then there’s also white chocolate, but that’s not chocolate. It’s wax.

Christie: I like chocolate of all kinds. I will have all the chocolate.

Justin: It’s all about the dark chocolate.

What does ‘you can’t stop the beat’ mean to you personally?

Justin: Go ahead, Tracy. Your turn to answer first.

Christie: You can’t stop the beat…I think it means that— I think…I think that Justin should answer this question first while I think about it.

Justin: Nope.

Christie: I think it means letting everyone be themselves and not trying to infringe on other people’s happiness. Let people whatever size they want and still dance on TV. Let people let their freak flag fly.

Justin: To quote some Shrek right there.

Christie: Oh yeah, that is in Shrek.

Christie Graham (foreground left) as Tracy and Justin Calhoun (foreground right) as Link with Heather Marie Beck (background left) as Velma Von Tussle and Sohpie Schulman (background center) as Penny in Hairspray
Christie Graham (foreground left) as Tracy and Justin Calhoun (foreground right) as Link with Heather Marie Beck (background left) as Velma Von Tussle and Sohpie Schulman (background center) as Penny in Hairspray Jeri Tidwell

Justin: Exactly. But I think going along with what Christie said, I think it’s about being true to yourself and being confident and comfortable with who you are and with what you have to offer society. No one can tell you that you should be a certain way if it conflicts with who you are; you should be true to you. That’s the most important part. The only way you can truly contribute to society is if you are yourself. You are what makes society special. So if you’re not being you, you’re not helping yourself. You’re not helping anyone.

Christie: That’s right. No one can take that away from you. No one can stop your beat.

Justin: Nice.

What has this production of Hairspray taught you about yourselves?

Justin: That I need to dance more. What is it teaching me…it’s teaching me that— nope, dance more, that’s a pretty good one. I think I’m going to stop there.

Christie: I think I kind of already answered this question. I think sometimes I try to listen to Tracy’s own advice. It’s hard, for sure, and Tracy does it with ease, but I think it’s helped me a little bit with self-acceptance and self-love. It’s hard to follow that advice all the time, obviously, but this has helped me with that.

Justin: I feel like it helps you be able to stand up for what you personally believe in and what you think is right. No one else can tell you what to think or what to believe. You should follow what is true to you and what’s in your heart. That’s what the message of Hairspray is. You do you. Or like Corny says, “you do-do-a-you-you.”

What is it that you are hoping people are going to take away from seeing this production of Hairspray?

Justin: I hope they have a great time and yet leave moved. I hope they leave impacted. I want them to walk out the door humming the songs, but also stop and think that something in the show really spoke to them and then apply it to their own life. I want them to then be able to stand up to their personal bully or stand up to what they think is right. Allow the show to affect them not just in a way that’s happy and fun— you had a good night escaping from the world and that’s amazing because that’s what theatre does, and we need it especially now— but to allow this show to leave them changed. I want them to not go out of the theatre the same way they came in. And of course, have a good time.

Christie: Yeah, for sure. We want people dancing in their seats or dancing in the aisles, like I saw you doing with Charlie (swing Charlie Able) the other night when you were here, Amanda. We do want people to do that, dance in their seats. But they can’t ignore the core message of the show, which is tolerance and acceptance.

Why should people come and see Hairspray at Toby’s Dinner Theatre?

Justin: Because it’s worth every penny. The beautiful thing about theatre is that this show is never going to be done the same way, with the same cast, in the same environment, in the same time and the same place. People should always go out and take a chance on theatre. It’s not like TV where you can just sit and watch another episode of Netflix and it’s always going to be the same. Theatre changes by day and by night. It depends on how we’re feeling, if we’re sick or not, it depends on how you’re feeling when you come into the theatre to watch what we’re doing. And Toby’s has done Hairspray three different times now and it’s different every single time. Take a chance— if you love Hairspray— if you’ve never seen Hairspray. Come see it. You’re never going to see it like this again. Why miss out?

Justin Calhoun (left) as Link Larkin with Christie Graham (right) as Tracy Turnblad doing "You Can't Stop the Beat" in Hairspray
Justin Calhoun (left) as Link Larkin with Christie Graham (right) as Tracy Turnblad doing “You Can’t Stop the Beat” in Hairspray Jeri Tidwell

Christie: Yeah. It’s hard following Justin. He’s very articulate. There is something for everyone in this show. Everyone from my grandma to my six-year-old little cousin as come to see it and there really is something for everyone. It’s got humor, it’s got heart, it’s got a little bit of romance, a little bit of dancing, it’s just the best.

Justin: It really is. We got lucky with such a great cast and such a great director. It’s amazing how things have just fallen into place and how we’ve ended up with such a great show and such a good time. Everyone in the cast enjoys it and enjoys doing it. It’s definitely very taxing and that is not to be overlooked, but that is never enough to make me not want to do this show.

Christie: It’s a good kind of tired. It’s great fun.  

Hairspray plays through September 4, 2016 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (301) 596-6161 or purchase them online

To read the TheatreBloom review of Hairspray, click here.

To read Part 1 of the You Can’t Stop the Beat interview series featuring Coby Kay Callahan and Darren McDonnell, click here.

To read Part 2 of the You Can’t Stop the Beat interview series featuring Samantha McEwen Deininger and Renata Hammond, click here.

To read Part 3 of the You Can’t Stop the Beat interview series featuring Heather Marie Beck and Gabriella DeLuca, click here.

To read Part 4 of the You Can’t Stop the Beat interview series featuring Andre Hinds and Sophie Schulman, click here.

To read Part 5 of You Can’t Stop the Beat interview series featuring David James and Lawrence B. Munsey, click here.

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