Timeless to Me, Hairspray shakes and shimmies once again, the sheer quality of the show itself shining through just as radiantly at twenty years old. Winner of seven 2003 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Hairspray encapsulates the very essence of what makes Broadway such a joy in our lives.
A cult 1988 movie that became a hit 2002 Broadway musical that became a smash 2007 movie, Hairspray wears its beating heart on the sleeve of plucky, plus-sized teen, Tracy Turnblad. Set oh so specifically in 1962 Baltimore, Hairspray sees Tracy take on entrenched racism, conservatism and fatphobia as she seeks freedom, love and equality for all.
Coming back to the show after the Black Lives Matter movement, the unapologetic racial segregation on show is quite shocking, with “I Know Where I’ve Been,” Motormouth Maybelle’s 11 o’clock prayer for equality, all the more warmly embraced by the audience. The adult world may be set in its ways, but the burgeoning, boisterous teens of Patterson Park High provide a clear message of hope in their ready embrace of broader culture.
Given that the original movie was written by anarchical film maker John Waters, the musical has a distinctly subversive edge that serves as a delectable counterpoint to the bubble gum surface. Book writers Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan keep the jokes absolutely flying, and if many a pop culture reference to the early 1960s is lost on zillenials, the spirit of intent rings true.
The ‘60s pastiche score of composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman remains as delectably infectious as ever, with Jerry Mitchell’s original choreography seeing many a song blossom bounteously from gentle beginning to full company production number.
Mitchell wittily spreads the same few teen-friendly dance moves throughout the show, telling a key part of the story in dance when the white teens fabulously expand their dance vocabulary with inspiration from their new black comrades. Given the deliberate simplicity of the moves, they are designed to work when performed with precision, a level not yet achieved by the new Australian cast but one that will surely be closely approached in the coming weeks. Who knows, maybe they will even put on tap shoes again for act two opening “The Big Dollhouse.”
Jack O’Brien’s original direction is pacy and slick; the style is broad and yet intended to be tightly contained. While there are plenty of jokes to enjoy, too many are “stepped on” in this production; this is another aspect that is sure to improve with experience of timing and audience reactions.
It is a joy to see the original set design of David Rockwell and original costumes of William Ivey Long on stage in Australia. Riotous colours, tactile materials, and eye-popping wigs deliver a rose-tinted view of inner-urban ‘60s, with two-dimensional settings artfully conjuring a vivid three-dimensional world.
Carmel Rodrigues is a terrific discovery as Tracy, pouring her heart into the role and deservedly winning the audience’s affection. Rodrigues sings the demanding role with flair, and scores plenty of laughs with her wide-eyed comic delivery.
Shane Jacobson embraces his role as Edna Turnblad with impressive dignity, staying steadfastly true to the authentic spirit of the performance that is required. While there is room for more variety in delivery and a deeper grasp of the comedy, this is sure to come as Jacobson becomes more comfortable in Edna’s elaborate costuming and wigs.
Jacobson is more than ably supported by Todd McKenney as a warmly devoted Wilbur Turnblad. The pair presents a loving parental couple, and reliably bring down the house with show-stopping act two duet “(You’re) Timeless to Me.”
Javon King makes a sensational Australian debut as extroverted teen dancer Seaweed, wowing the audience with his vocals and dance moves alike. Asabi Goodman expertly captures the tough-hearted warmth of Motormouth Maybelle, impressing with her powerhouse vocals. Ayanda Dladla charms as precocious Little Inez.
Brianna Bishop has the perfect expressive vocal delivery to cut through sharply with Amber von Tussle’s deluded selfishness. Rhonda Burchmore brings plenty of showbiz sparkle as she sidesteps some of the darker aspects of Velma von Tussle’s prejudiced self absorption.
Mackenzie Dunn takes Penny Pingleton on a journey from awkward duckling to self-assured swan, a contrast that is particularly well illustrated in Penny’s exponential improvement as a dancer.
Rob Mills is perfectly cast as croony Corny Collins, successfully scaffolding the breezy character with a backbone of his own. Sean Johnston exudes a likeable stage presence as Link Larkin. Donna Lee and Todd Goddard each skilfully distinguish their range of quirky characters as the Female and Male Authority Figures.
Leaving the audience on a giddy high after the double finale of “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” this original Broadway production of Hairspray is sure to draw abundant interest from local lovers of musical theatre while winning plenty of new fans in the process. Fans who have only seen the 2007 movie have a whole world of musical theatre pleasure to discover in the expertly crafted stage version.
Hairspray plays at Festival Theatre, Adelaide from December 2022. To join the waitlist, click here.
Hairspray plays at Lyric Theatre, Sydney from February 2023. To join the waitlist, click here.
Photos: Jeff Busby