Leigh and Estee Moss like to play “pretend.”
The pair connect while acting together — which helps strengthen their connection as mother and daughter.
The two are doing that right now as they prepare to appear in Hairspray, the first play scheduled by Performing Arts in the J (PAIJ), the community theater group being established with the help of stage professionals at the Berman Center for the Performing Arts.
Mom is playing Velma von Tussle, a prejudiced producer who runs a teen dance party television show in 1960s Baltimore, the setting for the musical about young people trying to realize their music-filled dreams. Estee appears as part of the ensemble, singing and dancing throughout the show.
The play, which debuted on Broadway in 2002 and won eight Tony Awards, has music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman. The script, by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, is based on the 1988 John Waters film.
As mother and daughter prepare to go on stage Feb. 15-19, they spend hours at their Bloomfield Hills home going over lines, vocalizing the songs and practicing dance steps. Reality issues leave the spotlight of their attention during these experiences of entering a fictional world.
“I’m lucky that my character comes out on the right side of integration,” says Leigh, who moves Velma through personality changes that integrate the dance show that had set only one day a month for the participation of “Negro” teens.
“I think this play is very relevant for these times as we see groups of people experiencing prejudice. We gain insight into what it was like to be African American in the 1960s.”
Leigh, 47, a lawyer who has triumphed over stage fright, joined in productions because of Estee’s interest in theater performance and encouragement for mom to join in. Their first show together was a 2011 production of Annie for the Bloomfield Players Community Theatre.
“I’ve always loved music, dancing and acting and tried out for Annie when I was 7½,” says Estee, an eighth grader at Bloomfield Hills Middle School who recently celebrated her bat mitzvah at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
“I love musical theater, being onstage and wearing the costumes and makeup. I believe in myself, and that has given me the confidence to audition, which I think is the hardest part of theater.”
Mom is catching up.
“It’s supposed to be the mother encouraging the child, but she has boosted my confidence,” Leigh says. “She encourages me all the time.”
Estee has gone to theater camps, had private singing lessons and studied dance at Shanon’s Dance Academy in Keego Harbor. In Hairspray, she adds her voice to a number of songs, including “Good Morning, Baltimore,” “Welcome to the ’60s” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”
“This is my favorite show,” Estee says. “It’s a lot of fun with an important message about fighting for equality. The ideas were important then and are now.”
Leigh likes to talk about how she unintentionally stepped into community theater. When taking Estee to audition for Annie, she was told adults were needed to fill out the cast. With Estee’s coaxing, mom tried out and got a role.
The two have appeared together in other productions for the Bloomfield Players, including Oliver and The Music Man. For a production of Fiddler on the Roof, mom worked on publicity while Estee was a cast member.
“When I was in school, I took dance lessons at Annette and Company, then in Oak Park,” Leigh says. “For this show, I’m taking voice lessons because I sing ‘The Legend of Baltimore Crabs’ and ‘Velma’s Revenge.’”
Leigh believes that this mother-daughter theater experience has boosted the father-son experience for her husband, Jeffrey, also a lawyer, and son Ben, 15. During rehearsals, the guys go out to dinner and watch movies and sports events, but when the curtain goes up, they are part of the audience.
Hairspray is being directed by Mitch Master, director of the Performing and Visual Arts Department at Frankel Jewish Academy, and Elaine Hendriks Smith, director of the Berman. The design is being done by professional staff members at the venue.
“Working with my mom gives me lots of support for what I like to do,” says Estee, who is working on a production of The Lion King for school and has been in Shaarey Zedek productions of Mary Poppins and The Wizard of Oz.
“Taking part in theater has made me work harder in school and be very organized to get everything done. It also has made me comfortable with class presentations and advocating for myself.”
Leigh recommends community theater to other families.
“I’m meeting Estee at something she’s excited about,” Leigh says. “I love watching my kids play sports, but this is something we can do together.”
Hairspray will have five performances Feb. 15-19 at the Berman Center for Performing Arts at the JCC in West Bloomfield. Tickets start at $13. (248) 611-1900; theberman.org.