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Thursday, September 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

"Hairspray" and heels: kicking back at spa with mama Edna

By Nicole Brodeur
Seattle Times staff columnist

The shoes are killing him, so John Pinette, who plays Edna Turnblad in "Hairspray" at the 5th Avenue Theatre, gets a spa pedicure from Rachelle Aldrish, a hand and foot therapist at the Gene Juarez Salon in downtown Seattle.
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This time, they really are big shoes to fill.

They were first broken in by Harvey Fierstein, who went on to win a Tony Award for his role as Edna Turnblad in the campy Broadway smash, "Hairspray."

Now it is stand-up comedian John Pinette wearing the custom-made blue and pink high heels, working eight shows a week for the next six months as the timeless laundress with the ever-growling stomach and the ever-glowing heart. (The show runs at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre through Sunday.)

Singing, dancing and wearing women's clothes is new to Pinette, 40, who once opened for Frank Sinatra and whose more recent claim to fame was playing the carjacking victim in the last episode of "Seinfeld." In November, a recording of his one-man show at The Montreal Comedy Festival will be released on DVD.

We figured a new hoofer like Pinette could use some pampering, so we took him to the downtown Gene Juarez for a pedicure, got a look at his corns and laughed so hard the staff closed the door to his spa room. Shhhh!

Q: How are your feet holding up?

A: The guy who made the shoes for "Hairspray" said putting shoes on me was like putting a pump on a ham. I found out that if I ever was to dress like a woman, I would not be buying off the rack.

(Looks at feet being washed)

The corn and the bunion. That's the magic of the high heels. That's one week. It's going to start to look like Kuato from "Total Recall." It's a separate alien creature.

Growing up in Milton, Mass., we did this all the time. After we'd play tackle football, we'd go, "Hey, let's go to Kelly's Roast Beef and then go get pedicures. You know, pamper ourselves."

After 20 minutes of makeup, then a wig, pantyhose and a bodysuit, John Pinette, left, with Keala Settle, becomes Edna Turnblad.

Q: Let's talk about the first time you put on the shoes.

A: I tried on the heels and I made it across the room and the guy said, "Yeah, you know, you're really doing great on the heels." So just the fact that I could walk ... But the tap shoes are just not comfortable. Those will never be comfortable, and I've sort of resigned myself.

Q: How did the part come to you?

A: Harvey had become such a part of the show, they didn't know who they were going to get to replace him. It was just a general casting call. And they looked at everybody from John Goodman to Lanie Kazan.

Q: Lanie Kazan?

A: [Drops to campy voice] I loved her in "Beaches"! [laughs] I was performing at a comedy club on Broadway, and my manager said, "I want you to try out for this musical." I sing a little bit in my act, but just a capella, no experience. I wanted to do it right, so I went for some voice lessons. I saw the show eight times. And as a stand-up comic, I am in awe of the whole Broadway experience, the musical theater ... And my brother said, "You can do this part." I was nervous about going in, but knowing I had a good career in stand-up, I figured what the hell. I get to do something really new. It's like being paid to go to a great school. Some of it has to rub off.

Q: What is involved in getting dressed?

A: The dresser had to patron-saint me through the whole process: 20 minutes of makeup and then the wig, which is really kind of difficult, because they have to attach pincurls, which hurt because my hair isn't long enough. So I am going to have to grow my hair like Samson. The wig is the hardest part of it because I was sweating so much. Now they all but nail it to my head. Makeup, wig, then pantyhose, then the bodysuit that gives me a butt.

[Pauses, looks down at the pedicurist.]

You can mention in your article that she is using a bolt-cutter. You've never lopped off a toe, have you?

Q: This should help preserve your pantyhose, right?

A: Pantyhose — I don't think I will ever get used to them. My pantyhose bill is affecting the bottom line of the production. They buy them by the case. My pantyhose are, what are they, 7X? And I don't just put runs in them; it looks like somebody shot them.

Q: What has surprised you about yourself in this show?

A: That it has all come together, the dancing and the choreography and the music. That I can make it work. It is not overwhelming. If it was Nathan Lane's part in "The Producers," we'd have to kill ourselves, because it's just too much.

Q: Are you trying to channel anyone?

A: I think it has a little bit of my mom. A little bit of my mom and sisters.

Q: What aspect?

A: The concern, the [character's] endless concern for her family. And the sweetness. And the edge [laughs]. And for me, I guess I'm channeling Ethel Merman.

Q: We getting a color today?

A: No. Listen, I have shaved my chest. I have shaved my back. I have shaved my arms. I have shaved my eyebrows. I got my toes done. I have done enough for my art. I have sacrificed enough. Nothing else goes or is added.

Q: When the show is over, what are you going to do? Your hair is going to grow back like a Neanderthal.

A: Oh, there's other parts. There's "Quest for Fire: The Sequel." And I can play Bigfoot.

Q: Maybe they'll bring back "Alf."

A: I guest-starred on "Alf." I played a stand-up comic Howie Anderson.

Q: Like Louie Anderson?

A: Yes, Louie was really big at that point and Louie wouldn't do it, so they called me Howie.

Q: So does Alf have any real talent, or did he just sleep his way onto his own show?

A: You know, working with puppets — there is just something about it. Because the puppet takes on its own personality. I worked with one ventriloquist and the puppet did not like me. I would hear, "Kill the big guy and we can take all the money." It's a little creepy. He told me not to call the dummy a dummy. Yeah, I saw "Magic." And the "Twilight Zone" episode with Cliff Robertson. I saw "Avenue Q" and ran screaming from the theater.

Q: What would your mom think of all this?

A: I have had some success. And it's all been wonderful, and a growing process for me. But it's nothing to my family compared to being in a musical. They are thrilled to death. It's like, "Oh, he finally has a good job."

When people see the show, I want them to say that it was funny and it had a lot of heart and the singing was good. But I also want them to say, "And did you see his toenails?" Because it's the extras, like toenails, that make a great musical.

Nicole Brodeur: 206-464-2334


Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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