When Addison Garner was last on stage in 2020, it was on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, playing the part of Velma Von Tussle, mom to Tracy Turnblad’s nemesis Amber Von Tussle in “Hairspray.”
“I packed my bags for two weeks thinking I’d be back and stayed here for a year-and-a-half,” she says of being back in Opelika, where Garner made the best of a bad situation and created a Broadway Bootcamp during the pandemic.
Now, it’s back to “Hairspray” in the new national tour of the hit musical, but in a much bigger way. Garner has been cast as Velma Von Tussle, who sings the show-stopping “Miss Baltimore Crabs.” The new tour is set to launch in November.
“I’m so excited,” she says. “I’m looking forward to getting into rehearsals and then on the road. It’s a great show.”
Garner has pretty much been on a stage since fifth grade, when she played the title role in “Annie” in Opelika.
“I continued to sing and dance, and I really developed a love for theater in high school,” she says.
As a student at Opelika High, she performed in plays and musicals, earning a best actress award in statewide competition during her senior year. After that, it was on to the University of Mobile, where she earned her degree in musical theater and, along the way, won the title of Miss University of Mobile and competed in the Miss Alabama Pageant.
Her Miss Alabama platform was a program bringing music to inner-city schools, and it instilled in her a love for teaching that would come in handy later.
After graduating in 2014, Garner worked at Stone Mountain State Park, Red Mountain Theatre Company and Virginia Samford Theatre, eventually landing a job singing and dancing on Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Lots of ‘Hairspray’
And then came “Hairspray,” the Tony Award-winning musical, based on the John Waters movie, about Tracy Turnblad and her quest, along with her best friend Penny, to dance on the teen dance show that starred Link Larkin and Amber Von Tussle.
When she went in to audition for a production on Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, Garner wasn’t thinking about the part of Velma, the one-time beauty queen and a woman twice her age.
“I went in thinking I’d audition for Penny, but they immediately had me read for Velma,” she recalls. “A week later, they gave me the role. I was shocked, but I do twirl the baton.”
And Garner was twirling that baton throughout the week on the cruise ship in a lavish production.
“It was a massive undertaking,” she says. “We were the inaugural cast on a brand-new cruise ship. The costumes were made specifically for us, and the wigs were made especially for us.”
Garner performed on the cruise ship all of 2018, returning to New York to work in regional productions. She had returned to the ship for a three-month stint in 2020 when the pandemic hit.
When she returned to Opelika, Garner didn’t want to stay idle for long, and it occurred to her that children’s camps that summer were being canceled.
“I started wondering what I could do, safely, of course,” she says. “So I opened up my parents’ home for a Broadway Bootcamp for 30 students. I worked with them individually, one-on-one, socially distanced. They worked on a song of their choosing for a week and then performed it on my parents’ front porch.”
What Garner had planned to do for one week turned into three weeks, 10 students each week. After that, she took on 17 students for voice lessons, while nannying during the day. “I turned our home into a day care and a voice studio at the same time,” Garner says with a laugh.
Those lessons end this week, as Garner plans to return to New York on Oct. 17. There, she’ll start rehearsing to once again step into the shoes of Velma, this time on the national tour.
“Velma is such a character,” Garner says. “She can be seen as the mean villain or a comedic character, but she is so grounded in who she is. She truly believes she and her daughter are the best, and you really can’t hate her that much because she’s just being herself.”
It’s not like Garner at all, which is just fine with the actress.
“To me, it’s fun to be a villain on stage, because I’m not that in real life,” she says. “And I get to twirl my batons, which I’ve loved since I was a kid.”
The whole thing is fun for folks both on stage and off.
“It’s fun, it’s happy and it’s unifying,” Garner says of the musical. “No matter how many times you see it, it’s going to make you laugh, make you cry. It’s about someone defying the odds, and everyone can relate to that. You always want the underdog to win.”
And it’s an opportunity for Garner and the rest of the cast to get back on stage.
“It’s going to be special for everyone,” she says. “Most of us have not hit the stage for two years now, give or take. I think it’s going to be an emotional ride. We’re excited to get back to do what we love.”