Not too many people transition from a near-death operation to playing one of the most sought-after drag diva roles in musical theater. But that's exactly the experience of out Chicago actor Dale Calandra.
For nearly two years, Calandra has been touring as a standby with Hairspray—The Musical, playing Baltimore house frau Edna Turnblad whenever regular actor J.P. Dougherty vacations or can't go on.
It's quite a change for Calandra, best known around town for his work with the late Center Theater and Wisdom Bridge Theatre companies.
In early 2003 Calandra was told by doctors that he had a 10 percent chance of living when it was discovered he had blood clots and an infection in his small intestine. He thought it was appendicitis.
'I don't know how I got it because it was asymptomatic,' said Calandra during a telephone interview from Raleigh, N.C. 'The doctors are still scratching their heads that I survived.'
Calandra was in the hospital six weeks for this rare condition, followed by four months of recovery.
'My theater and personal friends and family were so supportive of my healing journey. I think that's why I ultimately healed as well as I did,' said Calandra. 'And now I'm singing and dancing in a red dress.'
Calandra landed his job when he auditioned during Hairspray's last Chicago run in late 2003 and early 2004. When an opening in the tour appeared, Calandra checked with his doctors who told him to 'go have a life while you're still here.'
Calandra also understudies the 'Male Authority Figure' roles and Edna's husband, Wilbur, played by out actor Jim J. Bullock of Too Close for Comfort and Queer Duck TV fame.
'We often share dressing rooms and he always makes going to work such a joy. We always laugh a lot,' Calandra said of Bullock. 'He's such a down-to-earth and a sweet, sweet man.'
Calandra is also grateful that the rest of the cast gets along so well, particularly since this is his first national tour.
'I've heard horror stories about other tours,' Calandra said. 'With us, when we're gone just a day from each other to travel, we're hugging each other at the first sound check like we've been away forever.'
The sameness of hotels gets Calandra down, as does his womanly routine to play the big and beautiful Edna. Surprisingly it's not the pantyhose, extra female padding or high heels that gets Calandra down, since all his costumes are custom-made.
'It's the shaving,' Calandra said. 'Because I don't go on as much, I have to keep it up once a week to be sure I'm ready.'
Being ready includes keeping his legs shaved from the knees down, his arms, pits and chest all hair-free. Luckily Calandra gets to keep his eyebrows ( unlike other Ednas who shave them completely off ) , since he needs them for his other understudied roles.
Calandra has treasured his time on tour. During a run in Orlando, he befriended Frances Milstead, the mother of the late drag diva Divine who created the role of Edna in John Waters' 1988 film that inspired the stage musical. He's also relished the attention from the musical's creators, who consistently check up on the quality of the show.
'They love the product so much,' Calandra said of the producers and creative team. 'It's never a chore for them.'
Calandra cites how Tony Award-winning choreographer Jerry Mitchell added some extra Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers touches to Edna and Wilbur's love duet ' ( You're ) Timeless to Me' because he saw how adept the current stars were with the choreography.
'I've never been involved with such a show that appeals to everyone from 8-year-olds to people who are 80 years old,' Calandra said of Hairspray's message of tolerance. 'Whether the audiences are gay, straight, Black or white, they all come out of the show with smiles on their faces because the show gives them such joy and a great message.'
Hairspray plays until Dec. 18 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. Dale Calandra is slated to play Edna at the 8 p.m. Dec. 13 and 2 p.m. Dec. 14 performances. Tickets are $37.50-$82.50. Call ( 312 ) 902-1400 or visit any Ticketmaster outlet.